When Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s post-apocalyptic sitcom The Last Man On Earth debuted, it got a major blast of praise for its opening hour, and then...nothing. The show carried on, but discussion was as bare as post-plague Tucson. Onlookers might be excused for thinking the show debuted strong then fizzled away. They’d be excused, but they’d be wrong, for The Last Man On Earth is as strong today - if not stronger - than when it premiered. Quietly, it’s become a bold, weird, incredibly empathetic comedy series that keeps astonishing its small following on a regular basis.
The strength of Last Man On Earth is probably best illustrated through its title character, Phil Miller (a play on the names of the show's executive producers). Played by Will Forte with charisma, energy, and a total lack of self-consciousness, Phil starts the show as an immature manchild who believes himself the sole survivor of a disastrous global epidemic. When other people show up, he sees that solely as an opportunity to get laid, exhibiting all the worst hallmarks of toxic masculinity save for actual violence. He's an absolute jerk, and he's the butt of most of the first season's jokes.
But as the show wears on, Phil transforms into the pathetic, goofy heart of the show - willingly submitting himself to bizarre acts of emasculation, reconfiguring his identity around his middle name ("Tandy"), and desperately trying to prove how much better a person he's become. But it's not Tandy's cringe-inducingly performative stunts that demonstrate his growth; it's the little touches of understanding and love in his relationships - particularly with his equally-strange wife Carol. Like The Good Place, The Last Man on Earth is all about a bad person learning to be better - it just takes a less direct route to get there.
The rest of the current core cast is just as strong. Kristen Schaal is a delight as the eccentric-to-a-fault Carol. Mel Rodriguez often supplies the show's emotional core, so deeply does his character Todd feel everything that happens to him. Mary Steenburgen is a minor revelation, reappearing on the scene as one of the show's wildest characters, married to an effervescent Cleopatra Coleman. Even January Jones gets interesting material as the show's most emotionally-guarded (and in one plotline, by far its darkest) role.
One of the best things about this show is how it paints the relationships between those characters, nailing the weird in-jokes and private obsessions couples have with one another in both funny and heartwarming ways. The best part is that - much as Tandy has grown, or thinks he has - the gender roles of the group are staunchly nonconformist in a way that feels oddly right for a post-apocalyptic show.
While at its core, it's a relationship-driven character comedy, The Last Man on Earth also takes its setting seriously, never letting us forget for too long that it takes place in a world where most of humanity has died. These characters are all there is, and their absolute need to help each other through dark times is what creates some of its best moments. The show has tackled issues like depression, suicide, and alcoholism, almost always positioning communication and friendship as tonics. It's this depth that can turn a guy having a heart attack in a full bondage costume after a 36-hour sex marathon into a truly emotional sequence.
That's not to say that The Last Man on Earth isn't also still funny as fuck. The show still delivers great gags, from a recurring obsession with The Shawshank Redemption to some of the best fart jokes in the business. Though the show today is less packed with post-apocalypse comedy than its Lord & Miller-directed premiere, it's become a better and more unique show for it, leavening its bleak setting with its ridiculous characters. People get really weird and silly keeping themselves occupied in the post-apocalyptic world, the show posits; with no society around to judge them, the characters can be exactly who they want to be.
Much like the similarly-fantastic The Good Place (again), Last Man doesn’t stick to its status quo, constantly changing the social structure of the group, moving them to new places, and presenting them with new challenges that create lasting impact. It's migrated from Tucson to Malibu, Silicon Valley, and now Mexico, each location bringing with it new characters and dilemmas to face. The show frequently spends entire episodes away from its main cast in order to introduce new characters, with Jason Sudeikis as an astronaut, Kristen Wiig as a socialite, and Fred Armisen as a murderer/cannibal as particular standouts. And while its many cameos (Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Martin Short, Jon Hamm, Laura Dern, and Chris Elliott, to name a few) often end in swift deaths, even those deaths end up affecting and changing the core characters.
The fundamental question that The Last Man On Earth asks - “what if society had to be rebuilt by a bunch of completely dysfunctional weirdos?” - is one any dysfunctional weirdo has surely asked themselves. Four seasons in, it's starting to become clear that when weirdos bond, they bond hard. And in a most wonderfully entertaining way.