The TV Room: The Last Man on Earth Season 1
If you were to plot the quality of each episode of The Last Man on Earth‘s first season on a graph, the resulting line would look like the bottom half of a smiley face. The season started and ended with entries that were almost overwhelmingly potent, in many ways unlike anything seen on television before. But the lag in the middle was the opposite. It was familiar and tired enough to inspire contempt, especially after the groundbreaking opening chapters. So what was poised to be a lock for best new show of the year will have to settle for merely giving us some of the best episodes.
Last Man is the story of Phil Miller, who believes he may indeed be the world’s only remaining denizen after a virus has killed everyone else. He spends a year driving around the country looking for other survivors and spray painting billboards with the words “Alive in Tucson,” which is where he returns after finding no one.
That all happens in the first few minutes of the pilot, an incomparable half hour of television the rest of which explores the kind of fun you’d have if you were the only person left (like stacking up aquariums in a parking lot and throwing bowling balls through them), the kind of concessions you’d make to civility (turning a swimming pool into a toilet by cutting a hole in the diving board), the kind of crazy you’d go (flirting with mannequins) and the kind of despair that endless solitude would bring (deciding to kill yourself by driving a truck full speed into a boulder). By the last moments of the pilot, when Phil realizes that someone else has come to Tucson, the viewer is ready to cry tears of joy right along with him. No matter their religion, politics, race or anything else, other people are preferable to no people.
The exciting and clever thing Last Man does over the next couple of episodes is to immediately begin questioning the truth of its own revelation about the need for companionship. Carol Pilbasian, the new arrival, is such a complete philosophical mismatch for Phil that he starts to resent her before he’s had a chance to be truly happy she’s there. The two episodes in which he comes to terms with her are magnificently paced, sympathetic and touching.
That growth comes to a literal crashing halt when Phil and Carol’s truck collides with a limousine driven by Melissa (January Jones). Suddenly there’s another person on the planet and, oh yeah, she looks like January Jones. Not only does Phil’s emotional growth stop at this, it goes into reverse. He regresses into a horny adolescent and loses any sense of empathy. Meanwhile, the audience loses any sense of sympathy. The episodes that follow Melissa’s introduction become an interminable repetition of the same premise. Phil wants desperately to have sex with Melissa and acts likes like an unforgivable, lying, cruel buffoon to make it happen. The homogeneity of each week saps the show’s ability to draw laughs. Comedy comes from surprise, after all. Last Man also gives up the ability to make us feel anything for Phil because it loses our trust by repeatedly teasing redemption and then resetting for the next episode. In the second episode, when Phil rigs an irrigation system for Carol’s paltry garden, it’s a gesture that means something. By the time he acquiesces to cleaning out his “toilet pool” and installing a portable restroom, though, we know that chances are good he’ll just be acting like the same old jerk again the next morning.
In the final installments, when Phil finally, finally goes too far and makes permanent enemies of the other survivors, the show returns to the uncompromising emotional depth from the beginning of the season. Phil at last becomes sympathetic once more and the closing twists are both surprising and earned, setting up anticipation for season two. That doesn’t excuse the middle stretch, though. Television doesn’t work like that. No episode of a show should be able make another episode better or worse retroactively. So let’s be grateful for the good ones we got this year and expect more next time around.