The Last Man on Earth had a uniquely uneven first season. Its premiere episode was marvelous, a real instance of comedic, cinematic television, from acclaimed directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller of The Lego Movie. The show’s premise was simple and high-concept: years after all of the human race was wiped out by a virus, useless schlub Phil Miller (Will Forte) roams the earth all alone, having gone slightly psychotic as a result of his loneliness.
Unfortunately, the show began to dilute its premise almost from the very start. In every episode subsequent to the premiere, Lord, Miller, and Forte (who created and ran the show during its first season) introduced new characters – a creative decision that would seem to be the antithesis of a show titled The Last Man on Earth. The arrival of new survivors immediately cheapened the foundation and structure of the show. (For a while this could be theoretically justified, as the characters introduced at the very start of the season were female. Later on, however, when multiple new male characters were introduced, the cogency of the show’s title, The Last Man on Earth, became somewhat suspect.)
Not only did the show’s creators and producers devalue the show’s premise, they did everything they could to convince the audience to hate their main character. For much of the first season, the show focused on Phil’s aggressive attempt to convince Melissa, a beautiful blonde survivor played by January Jones, to sleep with him. Phil lied, schemed, and cheated in every episode in service of this pursuit. He hurt all of the other survivors, especially Carol, a well-intentioned, if annoying, woman played by the great Kristen Schaal (Louise on Bob’s Burgers).
Carol was the season’s most prominent character after Phil, and yet The Last Man on Earth never seemed to get a handle on her. She was almost (though not quite) as unlikeable as Phil: aggressively annoying, hawkish, grating, controlling. Not a very complex character.
So for much of the first season we had a show focused on a slimy, pervy dude always thinking about getting laid, and an annoying, shrewish woman who’s always bringing him down when he’s trying to have fun. The Last Man on Earth went from being an innovative, uniquely cinematic show to an extremely conventional, boring one.
The first two episodes of The Last Man on Earth Season 2 see a huge step up in quality from Season 1. For one thing, the first two episodes focus exclusively on Phil and Carol, excluding all of the other survivors from Season 1 (most of whom I won’t even mention in this review because they are, for the most part, badly written and boring). This thinning of last year’s ensemble allows the show to get deeper into Phil’s psyche, specifically regarding his relationship with Carol.
It seems as though the people behind The Last Man on Earth have absorbed some of the criticism that hit them last season. The show seems to have course-corrected – now, Phil and Carol are interesting characters, their relationship is deep and seems real, and, most importantly, they are no longer freakishly annoying.
One of the recurring elements of Season 1 that I found incorrigible was Phil’s inability to learn from his mistakes – he kept getting caught in stupid, trivial lies, and continued pathologically to tell stupid, trivial lies that were sure to end poorly for him. It was the definition of lazy sitcom farce – and The Last Man on Earth is a show that should never have resorted to that sort of thing.
At one point early in Season 2, Phil is tempted to lie to Carol. The two of them have recently returned to their Season 1 homes in Tuscon (in fact, Phil, who is terrified to return to the other survivors for fear of violence, (insanely) drugs Carol, kidnaps her, and drags her to Tuscon, knowing that she is lonely and desperate for the company of the other survivors – an act that Carol later construes, helpfully, as selfless and kind). Back in Tuscon, Phil finds a note from Melissa saying that the other survivors have moved to Malibu. He is faced with the following dilemma: tell Carol where the survivors are, and have to risk going to Malibu with Carol to make her happy; or lie to Carol, not bring up the note, and to once again settle down in Tuscon, Phil and Carol, Carol none the wiser.
For a small segment of one episode, Phil actually hides the note from her. (When he first hid the note, I groaned, thinking that the show was going down the path of Season 1 – but that was not the case.) Surprisingly, Phil does an about-face – he sees how lonely and sad Carol is, and admits his lie. He tells Carol that the survivors are in Malibu, and unselfishly travels to Malibu with her.
This is fantastic character development – it displays real growth on the part of Phil, who would never have been this noble in Season 1. Apparently, the show’s writers were smart enough to take Phil out of the one-note stereotype role that he was filling in Season 1 and to imbue him with some actual human character traits.
And as Phil’s lack of depth was my biggest problem with Season 1, I have a lot of hope for the rest of Season 2. As long as The Last Man on Earth keeps this level of storytelling up for the rest of the season, I will have no complaints. However, things can still go wrong – last season only went downhill after two really good episodes. The same could happen in Season 2, I suppose. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
(I also want to mention that the show does pick up on last season’s cliffhanger, but as of yet seems to be going nowhere with it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be of no consequence until next season. Anyway, it doesn’t look as if it will be hugely significant to the show’s story for at least another little bit.)
The Last Man on Earth Season 2 Premiere Rating: a tentative 8.5/10