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“The Last Man on Earth” Review: Man alive

Last Man on Earth 1.jpg

JORDIN ALTHAUS, FOX

Note: This post contains spoilers for season one, episodes one and two of “The Last Man on Earth,” entitled “Alive in Tucson” and “The Elephant in the Room.”

What does it mean to be truly alone? Movies like “I Am Legend” tackled this question on a blockbuster scale, but television hasn’t yet found a way to tackle this intriguing sci-fi scenario, despite the inherent appeal of the apocalypse on shows like “The Walking Dead.”

Enter “The Last Man on Earth,” which picks up two years after a plague of some kind has seemingly wiped out the entire population of earth, save title character Phil Miller (former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Will Forte, also the show’s creator and executive producer). Phil has a bushy beard, a nimble pickup truck and a lot of excrement in his backyard in Tucson, Arizona. And for some reason, he’s the only man around.

In the first half of Sunday’s two-episode premiere, Phil ambles around Tucson, wreaking havoc with no consequences. He drives two cars into one another and giggles at the explosion. He sprays whipped cream in his wine (“not as good,” he admits). He watches “Cast Away” and scoffs at the notion that a lonely man will turn to volleyballs for comfort, only to decorate and converse with numerous balls for entertainment the next night. For a while, Phil seems to revel in his freedom, though he does lament that he doesn’t have the touch of a woman to keep him company.

Up to this point, the pilot is a marvelously directed but thinly written piece of comic speculation. At no point does the show provide exposition about the nature of the apocalypse. Nor does it account for the unrealistic conveniences in Phil’s universe - the apocalypse seems to have claimed vehicles and other debris along with people, grocery stores are still fully stocked with food that hasn’t spoiled and electricity appears to be functioning well. (Running water has ceased, though.) With these apparently intentional storytelling lapses, “The Last Man on Earth” becomes something more, or perhaps less, than “I Am Legend: The TV Series.” It’s not interested in the reality or even the fantasy of its premise.

It is interested in Phil Miller, however, and he is an interesting study in beard proportions if nothing else. Towards the end of the pilot (and we’re approaching spoiler territory now), his affect takes a turn for the worse, and he makes a suicide attempt, planning to crash into a conveniently assembled rock formation before pulling out at the last second. The pilot ends on a hopeful note and a cliffhanger that the second episode revolves within seconds - who’s making that smoke?

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JORDIN ALTHAUS, FOX

“The Elephant in the Room” complicates the dynamic of “Alive in Tucson.” Instead of Phil vs. the world, episode two pits Phil against Cara (Kristen Schaal, “Bob’s Burgers”), who describes herself as the last woman on earth. She’s by-the-book where Phil is anarchic (requiring that Phil stop at stop signs and propose marriage before sleeping with her), neat and tidy where Phil is messy and carefree (disposing of her trash in dainty bags instead of spewing it into the backyard). They squabble even as they contemplate the disturbing possibility that they’ll have to procreate in order to resurrect the human race.

One hour in, I’m not sure what to make of “The Last Man on Earth” quite yet. For a network comedy pilot, it’s audacious, mixing tones and introducing a spare aesthetic to the busy and frenetically paced world of the sitcom. Phil Lord and Chris Miller directed the first two episodes, bringing some of the same convention-smashing visual wit that made their “Lego Movie” and “22 Jump Street” two of 2014’s biggest and best movies. And Forte is more than capable of delivering both the comedy and pathos required of this oxygen-consuming lead performance, as he proved first on “Saturday Night Live” and then in the Oscar-nominated film “Nebraska.”

And yet, there’s something confining about a TV show with, thus far, only two characters who seem far from reaching even the most tacit of agreements. It’s harder to get invested in the pilot’s darker moments when they’re undercut minutes later by conversations between Phil and Cara that ignore even the barest hint of what these characters might actually say to one another. And it’s difficult to envision how the show will sustain an entire season or even a series, if the ratings manage to justify a renewal. (I’m struggling to imagine how they will - if “Brooklyn Nine Nine” can’t become a mainstream hit, this curious beast seems to have an even bigger uphill battle.)

For now, though, I’m willing to trust the talented creative forces in front of and behind the camera. “The Last Man on Earth” has plenty of promise. Whether it has vision is still to be determined.

Stray Thoughts:

*“Masturbatory” is a funny word, especially when pronounced with the wrong inflection.

*Lord and Miller pack a tremendous number of great visual jokes into the zippy pilot’s trim 21 minutes. I loved that all of the balls’ faces were subtly different, for instance.

*With her insistence on proper preposition placement, Carol is the Yoda of people.

*Alexandra Daddario, late of “True Detective,” makes a cameo appearance in the pilot as Phil’s fantasy version of Cara. As on the HBO anthology series, she’s relegated to a one-dimensional cameo.

*January Jones (“Mad Men”) is set to join the cast at some point during this first season. Unless the show expands on the one brief flashback in the first episode, Carol might not be the last woman on earth after all.

*The second episode is credited to writer Andy Bobrow, who wrote the remarkable “Mixology Certification” of “Community,” among others. Like I said, talented creative forces.

Tune in to “The Last Man on Earth” on Sundays at 9 p.m. on FOX.

@MarkALieberman - mlieberman@theeagleonline.com


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