TV Recap: The Last Man on Earth, ‘Is Anybody Out There?’

Written by Matthew Haviland

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Phil Miller (Will Forte) faces the post-apocalypse with his unlikely companion, Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal). This season, things are looking up. Meanwhile, Phil’s brother, Mike (Jason Sudeikis), floats in space, wondering if anyone’s down there and how he could even make the journey home.

Will Forte’s Phil Miller deserves our compassion. So far, The Last Man on Earth has shown him scheming his way through a slowly growing postapocalypse community, being thrown out of said community, and being joined in exile by Carol Andrew Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal), whom he’s wronged countless times, to start life somewhere else. Of course, Carol has saved his life before. He was about to to kill himself in the first episode but spotted evidence of Carol and decided not to. Unfortunately, they clash in every way, and though they “get married,” which Phil only agrees to because she’s the last woman on Earth (he’s no picnic himself), they are pronouncedly unhappy together. Shortly after the wedding, Melissa Shart (January Jones) comes into town. Aside from being stunningly beautiful, she is a much easier match for Phil, and Phil tries to be with her instead. The rest of the season runs on the fumes of Phil’s attempts to navigate new members of their community, who are merely responding to the “Alive in Tucson” graffiti that Phil himself scattered across the highway system but only seem to complicate his life, encouraging him into endless deception and dastardly deeds in the pursuit of romantic companionship.

Photo Credit:  Noah Schutz/FOX
Photo Credit: Noah Schutz/FOX

Season one turned me off for two reasons. While every element of the show was astounding, from the cast (Will Forte! Kristen Schaal! January Jones! Mel Rodriguez of Better Call Saul! Everyone else!) to the to the cinematography (think a soured-over Breaking Bad) to the endless creativity (Phil’s Wilson-esque sports balls, the evolving décor of everyone’s squatter mansions), two recurring themes kept the show from coming together. First, the way we’re encouraged to look down on Phil made the show feel mean. We’re basically given the story of Job and then asked to see Job as the bad guy because he’s trying to recover from God and Satan’s curveballs by unsavory means. He’s not the best guy on Earth, and does reprehensible things in many cases, but there’s a three-dimensional character being shown glimpses of hope and having them immediately spoiled. He’s a tragic figure who deserved more compassion from the show. Secondly, the plot, which progressed with impressive speed (almost every episode featured a major cliffhanger that changed the dynamic of the characters), can barely recover each week and often just feels like Phil screwing things up in response to things being screwed up around him. Moreover, the short episodes didn’t give the storylines enough room to breathe (this could be a great hour-long show), and we were left unsatisfied repeatedly, grateful when two episodes premiered together and otherwise feeling like the show only lasted five minutes. Usually “that flew by!” is a compliment, but for The Last Man on Earth, it felt like we got scraps of episodes instead of the whole things.

Consider me finally satisfied. The season two premiere not only feels more substantial than last season (and fresher than the repeated “Someone comes into town, Phil screws things up” storylines of last season) but presents enough fertile ground to suggest The Last Man on Earth could gather itself into greatness. Phil and Carol driving through America works really well, giving the show a chance to reboot itself and have unhindered fun with the postapocalypse. Even though we’re economically given just a couple stops on their road trip before they become separated, we receive enough goodness with their White House shenanigans, their visit to Carol’s old apartment, and Carol’s hand-drawn “photo album” that we don’t need more footage. The drawings, which look like the cover of a Criterion Wes Anderson DVD, are especially effective, showing Phil and Carol’s remarriage at what looks like Niagara Falls, Phil’s pretending to have Old Faithful come out of his butt, and the Tucson crew sitting on the couches in the middle of their cul-de-sac. With Carol looking warmly over these scenes in the presidential suite bed, they’re given a fuzzy tone that the show might not have achieved in real time. They are also one of the most creative ways that this show has expanded on the “no electricity” thing. Suddenly, portraits (albeit with colored pencil or crayon) are their photo technology. And the drawing of the “The Tucson Crew,” featuring every member of the cul-de-sac except for Carol and Phil, makes us feel nostalgic for a group that, from our Phil-centered perspective, were never as familial as they seem in Carol’s photo album.

This episode seems to herald a more heartfelt The Last Man on Earth, focusing on Phil and Carol’s surprisingly believable harmony now that Phil has come clean about his constant deception and Carol has accepted his brashness. From Phil’s bringing Carol to her hometown in Delaware to their homey squabbles over stopping and starting so often and not settling down anywhere, they really do seem compatible, with Phil’s own dorky innocence matching hers (he says to himself, for example, “Beefed it. Beefed it bigger than I ever beefed it,” after unknowingly leaving Carol at the gas station). They’re both still abrasive, but they believably match each other, which is saying something.

This season also seems intent on reminding us (1) that the world really is empty, even though it has seemed positively clogged with people thus far, and (2) that there was indeed a virus. Phil’s brother Mike (Jason Sudeikis), who’s floating around Earth’s orbit in a satellite, mentions both, marking off countries on a world map where he hasn’t seen anybody through his telescope. That’s a pretty empty world. Though it still feels crowded from last season, the show is telling us that we’ve gotten used to a huge anomaly, having all these people around.  And what about the virus? Last season hardly mentioned the virus at all (I even thought they were retconning the whole thing—“Oh yeah, it was a virus, guys”), but now it’s virus this, virus that. The vague phrase “the virus” feels clumsy every time they say it. Good thing both contexts for them mentioning the virus were effective. The sick-room setup in one of Carol’s deceased roommates was great, and Schaal’s plaintive delivery of “He was trying not to get the virus. He got it,” was both laugh-out-loud funny and mutedly sad. Meanwhile, Mike’s wondering whether he would be able to survive the virus when he landed back on Earth (if he were able to fly the descent module safely back) was an interesting question, not just a reminder of what happened to clear the world of humanity. The focus on the virus could also make for more engaging material. Aside from the constant drama between Phil and the Tucson crew, last season felt a little thin, so this world-building helps strengthen the show.

Photo Credit:  Noah Schutz/FOX
Photo Credit: Noah Schutz/FOX

Of course, now Phil is alone again, which is another plus. It not only gives us the chance to have more creative adventures without getting bogged down in social dynamics, but it’s also a fresh take on his solitude, because he’s not just alone. He’s alone knowing that Carol’s out there. Given the speed of this show’s plot development (with things shaken up and resolved nearly every week, each episode seeming merely to recover from each week’s cliffhanger), and given the “Next Week On” preview, it seems like Phil might find Carol pretty quickly. Or, in a more interesting way, seem to find her quickly.

This show not only progresses the plot with reckless abandon but plays with time in an equally impressive way. This week had a couple of great examples. Note Phil responding to the blindfolded Carol asking where they’re going as they leave Washington DC with, “I can’t tell ya, ’cause it’s a,” and then “…surprise!” while he removes the blindfold from her head in front of her old apartment. The bigger jump ahead happens after Phil loses Carol at the gas station and decides that she must have headed back to Tucson. One second, he’s looking at her photo album, saying, “She’s in Tucson,” and then he’s driving past a highway sign that says “TUCSON 342 [miles],” and then he’s pulling up in Tucson and giving himself a pep talk. Which happens within about fifteen seconds. Any show can have the character go across the country between shots and arrive at their destination, but most long journeys, even if characters don’t have much to do on the way there, are given corresponding footage showing how long it took them to get there. At least a montage, some narration, or switching to another character before switching back. But we’re given movie magic of uncommon order when Phil bridges over three hundred miles before we have the chance to exhale. The weight of this shift is made heavier because we’re so uncertain that Carol is there (which she isn’t) and because the clock is ticking for him to find her. But snap your fingers and he’s back in Tucson. We almost do a double-take as an audience: “He’s there already?”

This season seems to be about the characters. We’re taking a more sober look at both Phil and Carol. The latter, who’s been cast as the grating dork as much as Phil has been the scheming bad guy, gets lots of nice moments to shine, like the scene in the gas station where she’s putting beads on her shirt, saying to herself, “Ooh, Carol, where did you get such an expensive t-shirt? In the jewel markets of Monaco?” and making a facial expression that last season would have come off as grating but this time felt endearing (Schaal does great work here). This episode lets Phil shine, too, showing off Forte’s talent without cornering him with so much deception. Mike’s storyline seems limited to being a reflection of Phil’s original going-crazy plotline, but perhaps that will expand as he finds our heroes and plans his escape back to Earth. He even gets a nice moment where he sends his Nancy, his second-to-last worm friend, into space. At least his companions were alive, which means Terry-the-worm’s actual death will leave him completely alone (whereas Phil’s sports balls with faces would have lived forever). And that sendoff into space isn’t even the most melancholy scene of the episode. Carol shooting the gun off at night outside the gas station and Phil’s Walter White–esque return to Tucson were affecting glimpses of loneliness. Even Phil’s ghillie suit, which seemed pretty silly last season, seemed melancholy as he walked down the dusty, windy street and looked at his burned-down mansion. Where did they all go?

Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/FOX
Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/FOX

This season seems more deeply felt, more vulnerable, and less cynical than last season. Everything that was good about The Last Man on Earth has returned in full force, from the acting to the creative plotting to the great little details. Carol’s conversation with Phil about getting the bomb they dropped from the stealth bomber in the parking lot was funny; her room, swamped with homemade memorabilia of her dead friends and family, was both amusing—especially with Phil’s commentary that it looked totally sane—and powerful. (The set design in this show is amazing—from Carol’s room to the press conference of inanimate objects to the aforementioned photo book, there’s a quality of care that goes into these little touches that borders on breathtaking.) The Last Man on Earth went off the rails for me before, but this week’s episode has me excited about the season ahead. With an empty world, open hearts, unlimited potential, and some of the most talented people on network television, this show could finally be great. Hey everybody, I’m back on board. Where to next?

Rating: 9/10