Warning: Mild spoilers for The Last Man On Earth's one-hour premiere to follow.
The buzz has been building around FOX's The Last Man On Earth for some time. Early word had it pegged as something truly special, another unlikely notch on the belt of producers (and, for tonight's two-episode season premiere, directors) Phil Lord and Chris Miller. People were saying it was hilarious, a long overdue showcase for star Will Forte and unlike anything else on television. Heading into the weekend, the hype reached that next-level stage that, over time, has come to have an adverse effect on cynics like me: "Surely it can't be that good, I don't care who's involved."
The hype was deserved. The Last Man On Earth is a singular thing, and everything you've heard about it is true: there isn't anything like it on the air (and there probably never has been), it's legitimately hilarious (as in: full-on, frequent belly laughs) and Will Forte is a no-shit force to be reckoned with. A post-apocalyptic comedy that's unafraid to embrace the inherent bleakness of its premise, The Last Man On Earth swings for the fences over and over again, and it connects way, way more often than it doesn't. It left my head spinning with joy.
The setup, such as it is: a virus of some sort has wiped out all of humanity, and Phil Miller (Forte) is the only human being left alive. We aren't told anything about the virus or why Phil survived, and so far the show seems particularly disinterested in answering those questions. Instead, the first episode of tonight's premiere ("Alive In Tuscon") focuses on how Phil adapts to his newfound social status. First, he travels the country in an RV, using a loudspeaker to troll one barren city after another for any sign of life ("Hello? Bonjour? Hola? Chinese hello?"). Convinced of his solitude yet still hopeful, he spraypaints the episode's titular phrase on road signs as he works his way back to Arizona.
Upon arrival, he sets up shop in a sizable McMansion on the edge of town, which he fills with all the souvenirs he gathered over the course of his travels: a throw rug from the Oval Office, priceless oil paintings, a T-Rex skull, Oscars and so on. He hangs a single family photo on the wall*, makes his bed and tries to establish some degree of normalcy...only for things to devolve almost immediately in the absence of other people: without running water, he turns his pool into a "toilet pool" (it involves sawing a hole in the diving board); with no one to talk to, he finds inspiration in Cast Away and creates a menagerie of ball-based "friends" to shoot the shit with (the scene where Miller addresses each ball by name is a particular highlight).
He makes do, but as time goes on his behavior gets stranger and stranger. Pants become optional, cars are blown up just for the hell of it, a gun becomes the quickest way to get around windows and locked doors. These moments are frequently hilarious, but Forte also brings a surprising amount of pathos to the character: we feel for Phil, and empathize with his loneliness. And, yeah, maybe we also realize how quickly we'd devolve into pool-shitting, margarita-chugging, horn-dog savages if there wasn't anyone around to keep us company.
The first half-hour is packed with sight gags** and brilliant little vignettes, some of them funny, some of them heartbreaking. It all builds up to a scene where Phil decides to kill himself. Just as he's about to do it, something in the distance catches his eye - a ribbon of smoke drifting into the sky. Frantic with relief, Phil speeds off in the direction of the smoke, and the episode ends with Phil discovering he's not alone, after all. Better still, the smoke signal leads to a campsite that clearly belongs to a woman. Phil's so beside himself with happiness, he faints.
And when he comes to (in the premiere's second episode, "The Elephant In The Room"), he meets "the last woman on Earth," Carol (Kristen Schaal). She is everything Phil is not: tidy, forward-thinking, determined to uphold every law and previously established social norm, horrified at the idea of using a swimming pool as a toilet. She's repulsed by Phil's home, tsk-tsk'ing at the numerous stacks of nudie mags (for "masturbatory" purposes, Phil explains) and the priceless works of art carelessly stacked like firewood in the living room. Carol announces plans to rehabilitate Phil - they have, after all, been "chosen" to repopulate the Earth - but Phil's having none of it. He's pined for companionship for years, but how's he supposed to do that with a woman who insists on obeying stop signs in a post-apocalyptic world?
Schaal and Forte each bring the same loony energy they've brought to past roles, and they're so wonderful together onscreen that it's sort of stunning that no one thought to put them together sooner. Setting these characters up to be diametrically opposed isn't an original idea (I was reminded of a certain short story in Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles), but - as is usually the case in Lord and Miller's work - it's the character details that make the concept feel fresh. Schaal and Forte's unique energies sell the concept even further.
The Last Man On Earth looks great and, in tonight's premiere, provided more genuine laughs than some sitcoms manage across entire seasons. It's smart and weird and refreshingly dark, and by the end of the first hour it's answered the question that was on everyone's mind prior to the premiere ("How are they gonna make that concept work?") head-on. I'm immediately onboard with what this show's selling, and can't wait to see where it goes. If there's any downside here, it's this: historically speaking, shows this unique, funny and intelligent (and expensive-looking) don't tend to go the distance. Will The Last Man On Earth prove to be too smart for its own good? Geez, I hope not. This is the most exciting TV comedy to come down the pike in a long time.
* = This photo includes Jason Sudeikis, who I'm assuming will eventually pop up as Miller's brother? It's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, but I'm sure it's there for a reason.
** = So many, in fact, that a rewatch will end up feeling mandatory by the time the premiere wraps.