Since I regularly watch shows on Hulu, I've been seeing commercials for Fox’s The Last Man on Earth recently. No matter how many times I saw the commercial, I couldn't decide whether I wanted to watch it. Earlier this week, Hulu decided for me. I had just finished streaming the last episode of Fresh Off the Boat (which is worth checking out) and Hulu was on auto-play so it moved on to the most recent episode of The Last Man on Earth. I was interested enough to go back and watch from the beginning.
The premise is that a deadly virus has wiped out seemingly all of humanity, leaving protagonist Phil Miller, played by actor Will Forte, to believe he's the last man on earth. My first problem with the set-up is that audiences would literally only know that if they read a synopsis of the show. There are only a few vague references to the virus throughout the entire season.
Now, I'm in no way suggesting stunted dialogue like Phil musing aloud, “Gee, I guess it's been two years since that deadly virus killed everyone I know and love, leaving me alone on Earth.” But a voiceover at the beginning of the first episode or even a flashback wouldn't have been amiss.
My problem as a viewer is that I'm left with so many questions it's almost distracting. What kind of virus? When did it start? How quickly did it spread? How swift was the carnage? Did the virus just impact North America or was it a global epidemic? More importantly, where are all the dead bodies? It's a little too convenient that all the houses in Tucson – and by extension, theoretically everywhere – are just empty. When that many people die, who's left to bury them? Certainly not Phil if he can't even be bothered to pick up empty bottles and cans off his living room floor.
These are the kinds of questions a post-apocalyptic drama might try, over time, to answer. But this might be the first post-apocalyptic sitcom. I'm not convinced yet that pairing works. Layering situational comedy overtop of a massive tragedy is uncomfortable at best, and confusing at worst.
There are pointed moments in the first episode, with Phil drinking heavily to mask the pain, and finally deciding he can't go on any longer alone. Just at the moment when Phil has lost all hope, he finds another person Carol Pilbasian, as played by the lovable and quirky Kristen Schaal. But for me, the plot starts to go pretty steadily downhill after that first episode.
Phil has abandoned all the little social niceties we take for granted, because if there's no one else around, what's the point? Carol, on the other hand, has done her best to hold onto them, needing some kind of anchor to the past in order to survive. That dichotomy of beliefs could be interesting, but it gets boiled down to the tired convention that opposites attract.
The fact that the show has to always play for laughs ends up meaning they can't ever actually do anything compelling with the series. Any moment of raw interaction has to be followed by a joke, which stifles its impact. There are so many plot points throughout the season which almost get there, but then get squashed flat by one trope or another.
Beyond that, the cast is a little too monolithic for 2015. Are we really to believe that the only people left alive are by and large white, straight, cis, and middle class? The show isn't unaware of LGBTQ culture, either. I appreciate that the characters are unwilling to assume the heterosexuality of the new people they meet, but unfortunately, everyone ends up being straight anyway. The only reference to a queer sexuality is when two of the women make a coded reference to the fact that they've been lovers up until now out of necessity, but that's all over since there is a man around now!
Additionally, the show is filled with beautiful, svelte women. I'm sure Schaal is meant to be “normal-looking,” but crazy curly hair doesn't hide her Hollywood physique. A fat man is allowed to be on the show, but not a fat woman. Or even a middle-aged woman who isn't clearly a MILF. Instead, we're forced to watch these “average joes” fight over who gets which piece of hot pussy until the conventionally attractive guy comes along and turns everything into a penis-measuring contest. To make things worse, the “bad guy” who comes in at the end of the season to ruin everything for Phil is one of the few mixed race characters on the show. Really? We have to go there?
Where's the hippy advocating for free love? Or the anthropology professor explaining how relationship structures work in different cultures? Even if we're bound to sitcom stereotypes, there would be room for diverse voices such as these. And I would be interested in a lesbian or gay male character grappling with how far they're willing to go to save humanity. Instead, we're left with the schmuck, the prude, the slut, the fat guy, a couple MILFs, and the military man come to save the day.
Maybe even after two years alone, people would still be so inculcated with the social norms of our current society that they couldn't see past them, or unconsciously re-created them once people were around. But I just keep feeling like none of the people I know or talk to on a daily basis seem to be represented in this cast. If the only people who survived this apocalypse are “normal,” that's pretty disappointing. I can only hope and pretend there's some cool queer/hippy enclave holed up in Portland or something, because otherwise the show is depressing for all the wrong reasons. Maybe The Last Man on Earth will grow into its potential when it comes back in the fall. But I'm not holding my breath.
This review was originally published by The Horn on 06/13/2015.