The Last Man on Earth, premiering Sunday on Fox, is a comedy, but it might as well be a drama. Set in 2020, after an unspecified "virus" has wiped out humanity, the show follows Phil Miller (Will Forte) as he attempts to settle down in a mansion in Tucson, having roamed the continent in an RV in a failed search for other survivors. Immediately, the show is taking on two basic comedic challenges: Can you wring laughs from a hopelessly depressing premise, and can it be done with only one character on screen? The answer to both is yes, but more impressively, The Last Man on Earth never tips into ludicrous pastiche. For its laughs and its light touch, this is an emotionally grounded tale, with all the drama and darkness that comes with that.
Although an apocalyptic comedy is rarer than an apocalyptic drama, it's hard to ignore just how many times the latter type of story has been told in television and film recently: The number of dystopias with their own specific backstories and rules is too vast to list in full (The Walking Dead, Revolution, and This is the End are recent examples that come to mind). Forte, who wrote the pilot, and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the wizards who made The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street) wisely steer clear of gory details. The virus that scrubbed the earth of life isn't explained, and the streets of Tucson aren't littered with corpses or overrun by animals. None of the show’s comedy would work if viewers didn't accept the blank slate it's being projected onto, so the fewer details to nitpick at, the better.
The apocalypse serves as a playground for Phil's id—he enters a supermarket by blowing the windows open with a handgun, and loads a cart up with as much junk food and pornography as he can fit, eating Twinkies off his fingers with abandon. His McMansion home is loaded with art and memorabilia boosted from various museums—he wipes his mouth with the Declaration of Independence at one point, and later spills his drink on a Rembrandt he's left on the floor. Absent running water or sanitation systems, he uses one nearby infinity pool as a toilet and another as a trash can. "Apologies for all of the recent masturbation," he remarks to God at one point. "But that’s kind of on you."
Yes, there are a lot of easy gags here—this is the last man on earth, for sure, and it doesn't take Phil long to slip into the kind of slovenly, simian behavior that feels only a couple of steps removed from the lazy-husband jokes on an '80s sitcom. But Forte's performance helps the show skate over its more tired material. He was always one of the best actors in his eight-year Saturday Night Live tenure, who could imbue the smallest bit part in a sketch with a backstory just with a furrow of the brow. His understated work in Alexander Payne's Nebraska helped legitimize a talent many had long recognized, and his skills are on full display here. Phil never starts screaming at the sky or sobbing in a corner, but he doesn't need to—part of the joke, and all of the compulsion to watch, comes from the nervous breakdown he's on the edge of in every scene.
The real question, of course, relates to the medium—how on earth is this a sustainable story to tell on television? It's hard not to answer without slightly spoiling what's to come, so read on at that risk. In the second part of the hour-long premiere airing tonight, Phil finally meets a woman, Carol (Kristen Schaal) whose approach to the end of the world has been quite contrary to his. Where he has gleefully abandoned the tenets of polite society, she has clearly clung to them as a means of staying sane. This leads to some "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" humor that again feels like a throwback, and again survives mostly on the backs of its terrific performers (Schaal brings some wonderfully weird, sad notes to her tightly-wound character).
Even with Carol to bounce off, it's hard to know what the future holds for Phil, and whether it'll stay as compelling to watch him week after week. But The Last Man on Earth is rolling the dice on something tricky and avant-garde. Network television, and the traditional sitcom, is currently staring its own apocalypse in the face. Let it take some chances rather than keep pitching shows where attractive 20-somethings live in a spacious apartment—risks be damned. The Last Man on Earth might run for one great season and then leave, or it could run for many years and quickly dwindle in quality. But it has more of a chance to be remembered as a true original. That's a virtue to embrace.