Hell is Other People: Fox Gets Postmodern with ‘The Last Man on Earth’

lastman2When I was a kid, I sometimes wondered what I’d do if I, for whatever reason, found myself to be the only living soul on planet Earth. (This was back in the golden ’90s; there wasn’t much to do.) This is an attractive fantasy for children, who spend their every waking moment under some kind of dictatorial attention. I couldn’t even have the house to myself for an afternoon; imagine having the whole entire world to play with for the rest of my life.

But once I got the obvious considerations out of the way (running naked through the streets, screaming at the top of my lungs for no reason, driving cars, causing destruction just because I could) what was there to do, really? There would be no new TV shows. Reading or watching old movies would be pointless, since the value of art is deeply rooted in its reflection of society, which in this scenario is extinct. The illusion that human behavior matters is what allows society to function, and in so doing it essentially sustains all human life. As the cliche goes, it’s what separates us from the animals; our capacities for invention, emotion and philosophical insight have gradually worn down our biological instincts for survival and procreation in favor of those desires that are special to human life: greed, love, friendship, attention, sex for pleasure, etc. The removal of the illusion of meaning sends us back to our animal state, a fate with which modern humans would never be able to cope. We’ve come too far to go back now.

This is why the “last person on Earth” fantasy is less attractive to adults than it is to children. To say nothing of our sexual desires, we’d be thrown into the greatest existential black hole there is: What is human life without the context of other humans?

Will Forte must be a huge Beckett fan, because he seems to think this scenario is hilarious. The Last Man on Earth is his creation (he also stars in the show and wrote its pilot episode) and its premise is brash in its obvious unsustainability: Phil Miller (Forte) is indeed the last man on our home planet, the apparent sole survivor of a mercifully unexplained virus that has wiped out human life as far as our protagonist can tell. He travels the country in an RV, crossing off states on a map as he goes, finding no other survivors anywhere. (That’s American myopia for you: Miller decides he’s the last man on Earth, but he hasn’t even thought to check Mexico.) He leaves messages at state lines that read “Alive in Tuscon” and holes up in an Arizona mansion with a horde of collectibles he’s swiped from our nation’s museums: he wears Michael Jordan’s Bulls jersey, spills beer on a Rembrandt, uses Washington Crossing the Delaware as wallpaper.

Miller is a Tuscon native, which actually makes his decision to return there incredibly weird and sad. He could live anywhere he wants. He could live in the White House if he wanted to, but instead drags the Oval Office rug back to his Tusconian foyer. He doesn’t seem to be holding out hope for any old acquaintances to show up, but still hangs out at the local bar where he once celebrated birthdays. (A depressing scene–not the only one–has the abandoned Miller blowing out self-lit birthday candles in the darkened bar.) It’s a vain attempt to sustain societal institutions–family, community, camaraderie–that are no longer relevant.

It isn’t surprising that, not long after his one-man birthday party, Miller decides to kill himself.

The genius of the pilot is that, outside of its very final moments, it really functions as a self-contained short film. As Phil is about to drive himself into a desert rock formation, he notices smoke pluming up into the sky just over the horizon. As in the days of our cave-dwelling ancestors, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and where there’s fire, there’s human life. A hallucination offers Phil the heavenly vision of Alexandra Daddario, but that would be too gracious a gift for our unworthy, unkempt hero, and when he wakes up he’s horrified to see that it’s actually Kristen Schaal. Not exactly the image-positive message we want in 2015–dreaming about the buxom beauty, screaming in horror at the adorkable non-ideal–but in The Last Man on Earth everything that happens is a critique of contemporary civilization and culture. Phil should be thrilled to see any human life, especially that of the female variety, but he can’t dispel his culturally-enforced concept of the sort of woman he wants to sleep with–nor can he shake the idea that this sort of woman would be falling over herself to have sex with him. (How much do you want to bet there’s a “not if you were the last [insert gender modifier] on Earth” joke on this show? Five dollars? Ten?)

schaal2In theory, Phil’s situation has improved dramatically. Carol (Schaal’s character) may not be Lisa Tragnetti, but if the human race is to continue (well, the American human race, anyway) she has to have sex with him, probably many times to give the species the best possible chances once she and Phil are gone. (As for how the species keeps going after that…well, I really hope some more actors show up is all.) The status of being the last man on Earth is turned from a curse to a blessing, with the opportunity for sex, companionship, and the possible honor of being the Adam of Mankind 2.0. But Phil isn’t First Man material; he’s a man-child, a product of American culture and advertising. He prays to God for a woman–one woman, he says, any woman. Only a spoiled, oafish American male would receive the literal answer to his prayers and still feel gypped. For Phil, it’s like asking for the Dallas Cowboys and getting the Denver Broncos.

The pilot episode, “Alive in Tuscon,” segues into the second episode, aptly titled “The Elephant in the Room.” Here we get a look at Carol’s psychology, and it’s strange terrain indeed. She’s lively, talkative–she seems to be talking for the whole of the human race in its absence. Her respect for the customs of bygone society borders on the pathological. She can’t resist correcting Phil’s syntax, even when the technically correct word order results in unwieldy sentences that no right-minded human would ever purposefully speak. She asks him to please stop at stop signs even though traffic isn’t a thing anymore. When the two venture to a hardware store to address the running water situation, Carol admonishes Phil for parking in a handicap space. She has the audacity to desire working toilets, fresh vegetables, law and order–the stuff of life before the virus.

Of course, Phil finds Carol’s behavior ridiculous. In a world without other humans, laws and traditions are as irrelevant as the wealth and status that Phil absentmindedly mocks by squatting in a mansion and defecating in its swimming pools. He tries to prove his point by pulling out of the handicap space and driving straight into the hardware store, but Carol still demands that modern civilization be upheld and refuses to buy into Phil’s nihilism. She asks Phil if he would burn down a church, and his response–of course he wouldn’t burn down a church–has the bizarre effect of strengthening both protagonists’ cases. To Phil’s credit, yes, traditions have lost a lot of their meaning, but his post-apocalyptic destruction is just as arbitrary. Things like handicap spaces, churches and hardware stores all serve the same basic functions, both practical (offering comfort in times of difficulty) and ceremonial (providing the illusion that convenience/belief in an afterlife/building and maintaining structures can act as barriers against the inevitable). For Carol, institutions aren’t rendered meaningless by the lack of a society to uphold them. She sees herself as a link from one period of humanity to the next, with the power to carry the traditions of the old society into whatever quasi-society she and Phil create together. She’s the real alpha-character here; though her sunny stick-to-itiveness seems corny and, given the context, downright laughable, it’s also the only hope for the future. Phil has already given up; Carol refuses to.

Of course, creating a viable irrigation system is not an easy job, and before long Carol is exhausted and making a fountain-toilet for herself at her adjacent mansion. (It’s interesting that private property is not one of the old-world traditions that Carol strives to uphold; will Phil be okay with raising his kids to be Marxists?) We discover in this part of the episode that, for modern men, the driving force behind production is not survival or a higher standard of living, but guilt and the need to be liked even by people we don’t like. Phil feels bad about not helping with the water situation, so he goes to a local water tower and attempts to redistribute the water to the McMansion development that he and Carol call home. He works in varying degrees of frustration for several hours, finally rigging up a hose system that carries water to Carol’s vegetable garden. Again, it’s a mixed message–the man completes the work that the woman couldn’t, resulting in his redemption and her forgiveness–but we can at least see the seeds of Phil being inspired by Carol’s industriousness rather than being turned off by it. She improves his life and his outlook, if only intermittently.

Near the end of this second episode, Carol opens the door for procreating, but again her old-world mentality rears its head: before she and Phil have sex, they must be married. Since institutions mean nothing to Phil, he’ll do whatever, though he once again rails about the absurdity of Carol’s preoccupation with a social order that no longer exists. (Strangely not addressed in the episode: how do you get married without a priest, or at least a justice of the peace?) Carol seems to want to operate as if God’s always watching–she must take care of His earth and observe His rules, even more so now that the Almighty doesn’t have many other humans to look after. The devastation of the human race hasn’t filled her with terrified piety, exactly, but she does seem to want to be on her best behavior, and she’s got no one to impress other than the Man upstairs and the man next door–and the latter isn’t exactly Jesus Christ.

The Last Man on Earth, like much worthwhile art, takes a common fantasy and casts it into the light of real human foibles. These first episodes are baby steps, and I fear that the existential anguish at the center of the premise will be squashed under the usual sitcom trappings if more people show up. Conversely, the farcical element of the show–the last two people on Earth can’t stand each other–isn’t enough to carry a successful series; if Forte and his writers follow that wavelength, we might be talking this time next year about what a weird, doomed little show this was, and maybe about how it should’ve been a Spike Jonze movie instead. If Forte can play his cards just right, this show could be serialized television’s No Exit–except, you know, funnier.

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