When The Last Man on Earth debuted in March to critical praise and surprisingly strong ratings, it felt like a notable anomaly on network television. In its spare opening episode, creator/star Will Forte's vision of the post-apocalypse Earth featured a white-trash Monsieur Hulot-type wreaking wanton property destruction in Tucson and pilfering antiquities from the Smithsonian in an effort to stave off the crushing emptiness of the world. When another character (played by Kristen Schaal) entered the scene, it initially felt like sweet relief—someone for Forte's shellshocked wanderer to play off of—but then more people started rolling in, and the show became something far more nightmarish: a vision of the dating life of a single, entitled, American thirtysomething.
Perhaps the hint had been in the title all along: after all, Phil Miller (Forte) is quickly proven not to be the actual last man alive, as other survivors of an unexplained virus arrive every week at his Tucson refuge. Instead, the title is perhaps a reference to the old adage, "Not if you were the last man on earth," an attitude Phil frequently runs into as he tries to execute hair-brained romantic schemes with every woman who rolls into town. It's a tonal shift that made the show intensely uncomfortable to watch most weeks and cost it some critical support after its pilot episode, which relied more on spare absurdity and didn't seek so doggedly to make its audience cringe.
TV critics have pointed out that The Last Man on Earth would probably have benefited from a Netflix-style release, where an entire season is dumped onto the Internet all at once. While Forte is clearly using his post-apocalyptic universe to tell a very specific story with a carefully considered arc, he's doing it with very little sympathy for his protagonist, which makes week-to-week viewing something of a slog. Phil Miller (played by Forte) began the series as a bearded clown who had been alone for so long that he happily used his swimming pool as a giant toilet. But once women started showing up, his behavior became far more predictable.
More often than not, the plotting of The Last Man on Earth resembles some giant cosmic joke being played on Phil: a Twilight Zone episode lasting a whole season. Phil is first heartened to meet another human—the persnickety Carol Pilbasian (Schaal)—but quickly finds he can't stand her. She's eager to work on repopulating the earth with him, but only if they get married, a seemingly meaningless ritual he grudgingly assents to. The second that happens, another lady pulls into town: Melissa (January Jones), a gorgeous blonde who confesses to Phil that she's "horny" but respects his marriage vows, to his great consternation.
The entire season has played out that way. Phil craves human contact, popularity, and most of all, consequence-free sex. His post-apocalyptic existence is otherwise nihilistic: When he's not vainly trying to impress the women of Tucson (two more have since shown up, played by Mary Steenburgen and Cleopatra Coleman) he's usually engaging in wanton destruction for the sake of it, such as lazily setting a mountain of toilet paper rolls on fire, or driving a steamroller over six-packs of beer. In the context of a mostly empty Earth, Phil's outlook makes some sense, but there are other obvious metaphors at work.
On Saturday Night Live, Forte always excelled at exploring the dark side of the seemingly ordinary white dude. His best-known recurring characters included Tim Calhoun, a dull, soft-spoken political candidate with a horrifying history of arrests and drug addiction, and Jeff Montgomery, a sex offender identifying himself to neighbors on Halloween so he can pretend that he's just trick-or-treating "in costume." Phil Miller isn't quite as unsympathetic, but he's also no heroic protagonist. Every time he comes close to coupling with one of the beautiful residents of Tucson, some cruel twist cheats him out of his chance, for which he usually ends up cursing God. But all that underlines is his own sense of entitlement.
Phil is, after all, extremely unremarkable, and lacking in the kind of practical skills one might need to rebuild human civilization. While everyone else tries to pitch in to restore running water and power, Phil mostly schemes to rid the town of other men so that its female residents have to be forced to rely on him, like some sad parable of dating in your late 30s. Phil thinks he doesn't have a ton to offer (although he sometimes shows flashes of a far sweeter, gentler personality) so he hopes that currying sheer desperation in others can carry him over the line.
Forte's real achievement, and the reason The Last Man on Earth has paid off in its first season (Fox has renewed it for a second), is that he doesn't lose sight of his characters' humanity amid the satire and crisp, eye-catching visuals (it's easily the best-looking comedy on television). Carol entered the show as a cartoonish shrew, demanding Phil obey the romantic rituals of the society she remembered (a candle-lit proposal, writing his own wedding vows) and clinging to monogamy as a desperate crutch despite only having met him a few days ago. But she quickly realized her husband's flaws, handed him a divorce (everything's very informal post-apocalypse) and found herself a new man played by Boris Kodjoe, in a glib but nonetheless effective moment of triumph.
Even Phil has had his sympathetic moments. After weeks of chasing the placid but undeniably pretty Carol, he finally broke down mid-season and admitted to her that he had basically lost his mind—that living without people for months on end, then being confronted with the typical social anxieties of the old world, had driven him to behave like a lunatic. It wasn't some pivotal scene of redemption so much as a brief moment of vulnerability, the kind that Phil's outmoded male lizard-brain won't allow him more of as he struggles to impress the others.
As the season winds to a close on Sunday, the increasingly isolated Phil has now even been robbed of his name (Kodjoe's character is also called Phil Miller, so the original Phil is now referred to by his middle name, Tandy). The penultimate episode saw Phil start to consider murder as his only option for survival, and whether or not the finale doubles down on that Lord of the Flies territory, the real achievement is that almost any plot development, even murder, seems plausible for this show. What other comedy can boast the same thing?
Whether or not this slow character development has won back the show's fans (its audience has dipped since a strong start), the original shift in tone was probably still crucial to The Last Man on Earth's survival. Of course, Forte could have embarked on a film or miniseries that stuck to the comedy of the man alone, fending for sanity in an empty America, but episodic television requires something a little more open-ended than that. The new characters, and Phil's painful love life, guaranteed Last Man's future on TV, even as it made its storytelling more creatively challenging—but not at the cost of its uniqueness.