Review: The Last Man On Earth 1×1-1×2 (US: Fox)

You'd be better off watching Red Dwarf re-runs

The Last Man On Earth

In the US: Sundays, 9.30c/8.30c, Fox

Literature – and in particular science fiction – has a long tradition of imagining what life would be like if everyone in the world was dead except for one person. Indeed, the very first English-language novel, Robinson Crusoe, is largely about one man’s exploits alone on a desert island. And since then, there’s been the likes of Castaway, Life After People, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, The Omega Man, Silent Running and even Red Dwarf.

A common theme ever since Crusoe has been that finally having no distractions and the chance to do whatever one wants by oneself is unbearable. And almost always the author gives in and provides the hero someone else with whom he can interact – because the story’s also pretty dull otherwise. Crusoe had his Man Friday, Silent Running had its little robots, Red Dwarf had its Rimmer and so on.

So in a sense, the similarly themed The Last Man on Earth is nothing new, despite being both a sitcom and having the unlikely home of Fox. The show sees Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte seemingly the only man alive in the whole of North America, if not the world, following the outbreak of a terrible virus (that apparently destroys human bodies right down to the skeletons, leaving no ugly dead bodies behind anywhere…). For over a year, he’s by himself doing whatever he wants, appropriating whatever he needs from wherever he visits, but apparently happy to settle down in a McMansion in his home town of Tucson, Arizona.

Gradually, he begins to realise there’s no point to life without other people and prays to God that He send someone, anyone, to end his loneliness – preferably female, though. God fails to answer, so Forte tries to kill himself. Except at the last moment, it turns out his prayers have been answered and there is one woman alive in the world still, and she’s found Forte.

Unfortunately, she’s Kristen Schaal. And just as Burgess Meredith discovered in Time Enough At Last, you should be careful what you wish for.

About
The Last Man on Earth chronicles the life and adventures of an average guy – and humanity’s last hope – who discovers what life is like when no one is telling you what you can and cannot do. The year is 2020, and after a deadly virus has swept the planet, only one man is left on earth: Phil Miller. He used to be just an average guy who loved his family and hated his job. Now, in his RV, Phil searches the country for other survivors. He has traveled to every city, every town and every outpost in the United States, Mexico and Canada, and has found no one. As he returns to his hometown of Tucson, Phil comes to the realization that he is almost certainly the last living being on the face of the earth

Is it any good?
Originally, this was going to be a movie and to be honest, that’s what it should have been, since it doesn’t have quite enough ideas for a series and some of the ideas it does have should have been left in a box.

The show has two big problems. The first is the characters. Forte is an ‘average guy’, which is TV code for a grade A loser. He doesn’t bother putting much effort into anything yet expects big things for himself from the world. When presented with the chance to do anything he likes, he ends up inventing essentially a series of elaborate bar games and using a swimming pool as a toilet. He could have moved into the White House or an army base stocked with supplies; instead he moves to a slightly bigger house in Arizona. In terms of budget, cheaper, sure, and over the course of the first two episodes, Forte learns that you have to put some effort into life for other people’s sake, but you still have a character who’s not especially bright, funny, charming or interesting. At least Red Dwarf’s Lister had some hobbies and knew how to tell a joke.

Then there’s Schaal. For starters, she’s supposed to be the antithesis of what an ‘average guy’ would find attractive – a female Rimmer so to speak. In a dream sequence, we have the chance to see what Forte was hoping for from the last woman left alive – True Detective’s Alexandra Daddario – and then we get the supposed opposite: Schaal.

Charming.

To some extent, the show hints slightly that Schaal is merely as equivalently average and rubbish as Forte is, but we don’t really get to see her side of things, only his, so she’s the disappointment, he the guy who could do better if he had a reason. She’s the ‘typical woman’ dismayed about the guy’s lack of hygiene and stack of pornography, not someone who’s had nothing to do with her sexual urges for over a year and who has been handling the issues similarly.

All the same, Schaal, who’s made a career out of being irritating on Flight of the Conchords, The Daily Show, 30 Rock et al, is as competent at being irritating here, meaning that we get to watch two very irritating, not especially fun people, with minimal desire to do anything interesting, interact for 30 minutes at a time. It’s Red Dwarf again, but if Lister and Rimmer spent their whole time talking about the cleaning schedule and wondering if they can get over their mutual disgust for one another long enough to have sex.

Which brings us to the second problem. The show doesn’t really have much going on up top. While there’s a reasonable amount of physical humour that works in the first episode, with numerous entertaining ways to pass the time being devised, but there are no ideas, no real things for the character to do. By about halfway through, you’ll long for Forte to beg for the sweet release of death. His failure to commit suicide is genuinely frustrating. Even when Schaal turns up, they spend their time watering tomatoes together rather than doing anything.

The first two episodes are amiable enough and future episodes promise flashbacks involving the likes of January Jones and Mel Rodriguez. And it’s intriguingly offbeat and different for both Fox and broadcast TV. But by the end of it, I couldn’t imagine myself watching more than one or two more episodes more – about the same length in total as a feature film.

So I’d stick with Red Dwarf re-runs on Dave, if I were you.




  • JustStark

    This sounds interesting actually because it sounds like an American attempt to do a British sitcom (basically, in all British sitcoms, the characters are in a good situation the audience envies, and every episode something threatens their status quo and the humour comes form their attempt to, and eventual success in, defusing the threat; whereas in all British sitcoms the characters are in Hell and every episode they come up with a scheme either to escape or to make their miserable lives a little less awful, and the humour is in watching them fail and have their dreams crushed once again).

    It will be fascinating to see whether the Americans can truly embrace the world-view of the British sit-com enough to do it successfully. Because to truly mine that seam of humour, you have to really be willing do make your characters suffer the most horrendous things, either physically (Blackadder, Some Mothers Do Have 'Em, anything with Rik Mayall in) or emotionally (Steptoe and Son, Fawlty Towers) or just in terms of the inescapability of their circumstances (Porridge, Red Dwarf, Butterflies where the prison doors are internal to Wendy Craig but no less firmly locked for that).

    What you can't do is be half-hearted, and put your characters in a terrible situation and then either show how it isn't that bad and there are moments of goodness (unless they are used to set up an even greater soul-crushing at the end of the episode), or (worse) allow your characters to build themselves some kind of life in the darkness by giving them an 'arc' where they try to climb out of their pit of despair and actually make some progress. .

    In general American re-makes of British series fail when they go this half-hearted route, and succeed when they do a complete flip, take the premise, and ignore the dark desperation of the British version and instead make it about struggling to maintain the status quo (I understand the re-make of The Office was a fine example).

    This, on the other hand, seems to be a British sit-com conceived form the start as an American production! It will be fascinating to watch how it does.

    Probably not actually fascinating to watch, though.

    The other interesting experiment in this regard was Episodes, which I'm fairly sure was cleverly done so it could be read both ways: Americans saw a comedy about successful people in showbusiness who would have great lives if they could just stop sabotaging themselves, and laughed at them trying to deal with the obstacles their character flaws placed in the way of them fulfilling themselves in their mansions; while British audiences saw a comedy about a bunch of people trapped in a shallow, meaningless existence and laughed at their attempts to find some kind of purpose or meaning only to be inevitably dragged back down either by each other or by their own venality.

    (The more I think about Episodes the more I realise it was a work of genius. Still didn't need the third series, though.)

    (Amazingly, my computer's spell-checker accepts 'Fawlty' but only when it has a capital 'F'. Isn't technology clever? It'll be firing off nuclear missiles and building Austrians next.)

  • JustStark

    Oh, and (having looked him up — knew I recognised the name) Will Forte was great in Nebraska. So there is that.

  • Kind of. But it's as much as outgrowing of “average Joe” sitcoms and movies, such as anything with Vince Vaughn, The King of Queens, Everyone Loves Raymond et al, where you have useless central bloke and a better woman. In a sense, it's a riff on that, since the audience expectation is that he's going to be paired with someone like Daddario but actually gets someone as bad as himself (Schaal). She's still more competent, not as gross, etc, as Forte, though, so there's the traditional tension and expectation of him having to do better for her (cf Knocked Up).

  • JustStark

    But it's as much as outgrowing of “average Joe” sitcoms and movies, such as anything with Vince Vaughn, The King of Queens, Everyone Loves Raymond et al, where you have useless central bloke and a better woman

    Yes, but isn't the point of those that the 'average Joe' is in an enviable situation (with woman clearly out of his league) and then every episode something happens to endanger that (better guy turns up, average Jow does something stupid, etc) and the comedy is (supposed to) come from how he deals with the threat to get back to the enviable status quo?

    Whereas this, from the description, seems to be trying to go for the 'trapped in Hell with someone you hate but can't get away from' approach

    (cf Steptoe and Son, Red Dwarf, etc).

    Which can work but I don't think will work if, for example, they take the approach of having him 'grow as a person' to become more 'worthy' of her (and, presumably, also have her become less annoying) as then it will fall between the two stools I mentioned: it will neither work as aspirational comedy (the US model, Friends, 'average Joe with better woman', etc) because the situation isn't one people want to see themselves in, nor as enjoy-the-suffering comedy (the UK model) because there won't be, well, enough suffering.

    So it will be interesting to see where they take this fusion: can they take the US-model 'average Joe' sitcom and invert it so it works on the British model, which (I posit) will require them to fully embrace the darkness of the British model? Or will they hold back on the darkness, allow some 'character growth' or hopefulness that the situation might not be as bad as it first appears, and so (I predict) fall flat on their faces?

    I look forward to hearing what happens, though Lord knows I'm not going to watch it.

  • “Yes, but isn't the point of those that the 'average Joe' is in an enviable situation (with woman clearly out of his league) and then every episode something happens to endanger that (better guy turns up, average Jow does something stupid, etc) and the comedy is (supposed to) come from how he deals with the threat to get back to the enviable status quo?”

    Rarely. They do/did happen, but were resolved by the end of the episode, usually. But KoQ, ELR, According to Jim, Still Standing et al almost always overlooked the fact that the bloke was average at best and the woman was above average. Instead, the comedy almost always came from the man's incompetence and the woman's competence and frustration at his incompetence.

    cf: http://www.smh.com.au/news/Opi

  • JustStark

    Instead, the comedy almost always came from the man's incompetence and
    the woman's competence and frustration at his incompetence.

    Um, that's kind of what I meant.

    Status quo: man has woman who is out of his league doting on him (supposed to be an enviable situation for the audience, who it seems are presumed to be fat, lazy, incompetent men).

    Then: man does something stupid.

    Threat: will his stupidity cause her to stop doting on him when she discovers how stupid he has been?

    Comedy (?): his efforts to try to put things right cause greater and greater problems, increasing threat level. What will she do when she finds out?

    Resolution: He puts things right just in time, he manages to blame someone else / cause her to think it was her fault, she discovers and just doesn't care.

    Enviable status quo restored.

    Same basic model as all US sit-coms: enviable situation is threatened, attempted comedy (sadly not yet an indictable offence), resolution back to status quo.

    And diametrically opposed to the classic British sit-com model, which is: awful status quo, character hatches plan to get out of situation / improve situation, plan goes wrong dues to character's incompetence / the vagaries of fate (or, in particularly harrowing ones, the plan goes right and escape is there for the taking… but at the last minute the character just can't bring themselves to leave), resolution sees character ending up back in hell.

    These are two models and they can both work, but I'm not sure mixing them can, which is why it looks interesting that this one seems to be being born out of the milieu of the first model, but trying to work according to the second model.

  • JustStark

    But on the other hand he was also in MacGruber, which was MacGruber. Hm. Oh dear.

  • “Status quo: man has woman who is out of his league doting on him (supposed to be an enviable situation for the audience, who it seems are presumed to be fat, lazy, incompetent men).

    Then: man does something stupid.

    Threat: will his stupidity cause her to stop doting on him when she discovers how stupid he has been?”

    But the wife never dotes. The status quo is always that she thinks he's an idiot and better than him. Because largely the audience is female, not male.

    Anyway, he then does something, which may be to improve the situation but is usually unrelated to the situation (eg Raymond goes on a golf tour), and things can get worse. Or better. Then they return to the original not great status quo.

    I don't want to argue the point too much, but have a look through, say, the plots of season 1 of Everybody Loves Raymond: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E

    Or the whole of King of Queens:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L

    My unscientific analysis suggests that most of those involve a bad starting situation, a plan to remediate it that makes the situation worse, before eventual recovery of the original not great status quo. Raymond's wife still thinks he's a tool by the end, she still has to suffer from his miserable family and so on.

  • JustStark

    But the wife never dotes. The status quo is always that she thinks he's an idiot and better than him

    So… how did she end up in this situation and why has she not escaped? Did she accidentally kill the idiot's parents and marry him out of guilt? Did she offend some powerful genie (Jeannie)? Is it like that joke with St Peter and the ducks?

  • She stays for the kids. Till Death/cancellation do them part. The general model of US sitcom marriage (as made explicit in Rules of Engagement/Til Death) is marriage for passion/love, grow out of love but stay together for the kids, before eventually actively hating each other but sticking together so that there's someone to take you to the hospital when you're ill.

    US sitcom marriages are almost always horrible.

  • It is on US iTunes for International peeps too!
    http://www.mitunes.tv/blog/201

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()