What would you do if you were the last person on Earth and had no rules to abide by? You’d lose your mind pretty damn quickly, if The Last Man on Earth, which premieres Sunday on Fox, is to be believed. But you’d also have a little fun while you’re at it. The latest installment in the post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world genre, the show takes place in 2022, after a disease wipes out everyone except Phil Miller (Will Forte), who has no idea how he survived or why. He is completely alone, he prays to God about how much he misses other humans, and he even, at one point, tries to commit suicide. But Last Man on Earth is a comedy — in fact, it’s one of the best new comedies of the season.
It should be impossible to find laughs in such a serious, devastating premise, but Last Man on Earth does so effortlessly, mostly thanks to the great Will Forte, the rare Saturday Night Live alumnus who actually deserves a sitcom and has taken far too long to get one. So it’s an especially good thing that he didn’t get stuck on some dull sitcom but has, instead, landed on a series that he also created (he wrote the first two episodes) and that is produced by Clone High and The Lego Movie‘s Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Pulling off this sort of sitcom — the heavy material, being the sole focus on screen — is tough, and Forte is dazzling to watch in the series’ first 20 minutes, where he is, quite literally, the only character.
While watching the pilot, you the isolation comes across vividly as Phil drives through the empty streets, casually prying open doors to abandoned houses and breaking into stores for sustenance (and booze), letting viewers know that he’s been doing this for a while. For a bit, it’s all fun and games. He decorates a house with stolen relics like fossils, famous paintings, and Michael Jordan’s framed jersey. He walks around in his underwear (wouldn’t you if there were never anyone around?) and drinks a $10,000 bottle of wine.
There is a playfulness to this sad isolation; a wonderful scene features Phil randomly knocking over a grocery store display simply because he can, because you can tell he’s always wanted to — it’s a childish urge we often have when seeing a meticulously stacked pyramid of canned goods — and because there’s no one there to stop him. But the fun never lasts; after Phil cheers himself on while “bowling” with two cars, you can see his smile falter as he remembers, once again, that he’s still alone.
First the boredom hits, and then the depression. After snorting at Castaway and proclaiming he’ll never talk to a ball, the series skips ahead a few months to when Phil has a whole room full of various balls with faces painted on them, each with their own name. It’s hard to describe the humor here because it all sounds so depressing on paper, but trust me: It’s truly funny, with real belly laughs elicited by small things, like the way in which Forte can repeatedly yell “Dammit” for an entire scene and it only gets funnier the longer it goes on.
At the end of the first episode, Last Man on Earth manages to get even weirder — don’t read on if you want to be totally surprised, though I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum. At his lowest point, Phil runs into the last woman on earth. Carol (Kristen Schaal) managed to survive, too, and becomes a welcome foil for Phil. They are opposites who don’t exactly attract. At times, Carol seems to fall into the trope of being shrewish because she’s still very much into following society’s rules — she balks when Phil runs a stop sign or parks in a handicapped spot — and also nags him, trying to change his slovenly ways. But the sitcom largely manages to avoid cliché by ensuring that Carol is also funny, mostly likable, and very, very weird.
This inclusion of Carol brings up a second depressing storyline: These two unhappy people forming an unhappy relationship that they will essentially be stuck in for the rest of their lives. Again, it’s a premise that shouldn’t be funny, but Last Man on Earth does a splendid job making it so. The bigger question is: How can a sitcom possibly sustain these two premises for at least an entire season? I have no idea, but based on the three episodes I’ve seen, I have no doubt that Forte will pull it off.