‘The Last Man on Earth’ and the Rewards of Sticking with a Unlikable Character


Fox’s The Last Man on Earth was fascinating in the beginning, an immediately impressive sitcom that managed to achieve the impossible: It was original. The pilot episode was an imaginative and exhilarating half-hour, one that was desolate and desperate, but also incredibly funny. It was anchored entirely by Phil Miller (played by the affable and scruffy Will Forte) who was, at least for a little while, the last man on earth. The series found humor in a post-apocalyptic scenario, then slowly added more characters (most notably Kristen Schaal as Carol) as it segued into a reversed romantic-comedy sitcom. At first, this change showcased a frustrating throwback to tired gender tropes, but the show soon became something entirely different and smarter — if you managed to stick around that long.

The Last Man on Earth took such a surprising downward turn that it’s hard to fault anyone who quit. Plenty of people, both my friends and fellow critics, have admitted to me that they gave up on the program around the time it shifted from being a post-apocalyptic comedy/rumination on Phil and Carol’s unhappy marriage of convenience to being an unsettling non-love triangle between always-horny Phil, occasionally-annoying Carol, and the gorgeous Melissa (January Jones). As the cast expanded to include a second man, Todd (Mel Rodriguez) and two other insanely pretty women Erica (Cleopatra Coleman) and Gail (Mary Steenburgen), Phil became more and more unlikable as he seemed to have only one interest: sleep with any of the women he deemed hotter than Carol (and get his assumed competition, Todd, out of the way).

Phil went from sympathetic — his loneliness in the pilot episode was so profound that he attempted suicide — to unlikable in such a short amount of time that the result was jarring. He treated everyone poorly (especially Carol, who he actively tried to cheat on numerous times), concocted numerous schemes to try and have sex with the other women (while everyone else worked on, you know, surviving and working to make their little cul-de-sac sustainable), and plotted to get Todd out of the picture (by humiliating him in one episode and then seriously considering leaving him abandoned in the desert to die).

Phil does terrible things (and the show does not ever let him off the hook; the other characters regularly give him the shit he deserves), then asks everyone — including the audience — for sympathy, so much so that the sitcom’s title seems increasingly to refer to the old “I wouldn’t be with you if you were the last man on earth” insult than to Phil’s (original) status. He is unequipped to reassimilate into society after being alone for so long; there is clearly some undiscussed trauma and instability within him (the suicide attempt, the ongoing need to talk to a pile of various sports balls with faces drawn on them even when he can go back to talking to people), but does it evoke enough sympathy to stick with a character who is such an unabashed jerk?

Maybe, more than anything, The Last Man on Earth makes the case for the binge-release of a television show. I can’t think of any other program that debuted this season, even ones that actually were released all at once, that deserved the binge-viewing experience more than Last Man. 13 episodes is a pretty short season (and some of the episodes were burned off on Sunday nights two at at time) but at times it felt excruciatingly long, especially as it emphasized Phil’s awful, easy-to-hate qualities over everything else. Having a week in between episodes makes it much easier to give up, to unceremoniously delete the season pass, and to forget about Phil Miller. It’s a bit tougher when you can just keep hitting next, powering through the lesser episodes in order to get to what’s coming next, originally planning to kill an afternoon but soon realizing that The Last Man on Earth has had a plan all along, and has a full serialized story to tell.

Later in the season, the sitcom introduced a third male character: a devastatingly handsome, super charming, and very skillful man also named Phil Miller (Boris Kodjoe), forcing Phil to go by his middle name “Tandy.” Newcomer Phil immediately wins over the women. It’s a stealth but huge role reversal as Phil-turned-Tandy faces real competition and is being treated the same disposable way that he treated Carol. For both sexes, it’s a damning take on sexual politics and the gross ways people treat each other, as the women find themselves in a competition for New Phil. He’s so hot, in fact, that Carol has non-committal sex with him despite making a huge deal about needing to be married before having sex with Tandy. The dynamics within the cul-de-sac veers wildly and often as the show’s intentions seemingly do as their joy of finding other living people on earth dissipates slightly, leaving room for ugly territorial conflicts, endless competition, and exasperation at being in such close quarters with other humans. It’s a remarkable change from the pilot episode, but it’s done so in a way that’s ultimately smart and satisfying — so good, in fact, that the lesser episodes (ones that I actually loved, though understand why many people didn’t) are better in retrospect and the intention of the creators is much clearer.

The season finale, which aired last night, employed a bit of bookending — spoilers ahead. After New Phil tries to banish Phil/Tandy from Tucson (the place where, Tandy explains, is his home and is where his parents are buried), Tandy falls back into a deep, bachelor hell depression of locking himself in a filthy room and eating toilet paper. He’s then left in the desert with only two days worth of supplies, but Carol eventually comes to help him and, when Tandy lets his guard down a little to actually be nice and honest, the two end up embarking on a new little adventure where they leave Tucson behind — together.

It was sweet, somewhat surprising ending but everything landed (even the second big twist, in which we learn Tandy has a brother (Jason Sudeikis) who is alive in space and endlessly trying to make contact with Houston, which will surely make for a weird and interesting second season). It was a great reward for sticking with The Last Man on Earth and continued to make its case for the most original comedy on air.