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Will Forte Made The Last Man on Earth as Loathsome as Possible

His Fox sitcom staked its entire thematic drive on the idea of friction and social discomfort being necessities for survival.
  • Kristen Schaal and Will Forte in The Last Man on Earth (Photo: Everett Collection)
    Kristen Schaal and Will Forte in The Last Man on Earth (Photo: Everett Collection)

    Will Forte — who stars in the new series Bodkin, which premiered May 9 on Netflix — specializes in playing characters that lead lives of quiet and, frankly, aggressive desperation. In one of his best sketches during his tenure on Saturday Night Live, he played a nervous spelling bee contestant who spells the word “business” with multiple Qs. His appearances as Will Grello on Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! produced some of the greatest comedy about the lingering effects of child abuse. (“Dogs should be raw! And living!” he exclaims after explaining how his father made him cook his pet.)

    His turn as an adult son trying to connect with his distant, elderly father in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska conveyed decades of hurt and affection without actually saying much at all. Who is MacGruber — a special-ops agent and his most beloved character to date — but a man who throws himself into dangerous situations despite being utterly out of his depth?

    Fox’s The Last Man on Earth pushed that trademark desperation to its absolute limit. A post-apocalyptic half-hour comedy created by Forte, the show follows Phil Miller (Forte), who initially seems like the sole survivor of a deadly virus that swept through the entire world the year before. (Last Man’s first season was set in 2020. It’s unknown at this time if Forte has prognosticatory abilities.)

    In the pilot, Phil drives around North America searching for other living souls, leaving messages wherever he goes saying that he’s “Alive in Tucson.” Back in Arizona, however, he seems somewhat content squatting alone in an abandoned mansion. He hoards priceless artifacts, drinks to excess, and causes wanton destruction. The end of the world is basically a goof-off’s paradise.

    But months go by and Phil falls into a deep depression from being isolated for so long. He starts “befriending” various sports balls with faces he’s personally drawn on, à la Cast Away, and tries to seduce a department store mannequin. He eventually plans to kill himself, but before he can go through with it, he sees a pillar of smoke created by Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal), a moralistic, rule-obsessed woman determined to maintain social codes and restart society.

    In other words, the exact opposite of the lackadaisical, corner-cutting Phil, who would rather shit in an empty pool than try to generate a running water source. In many ways, the premise of Last Man plays like a cosmic joke: the last man on Earth prayed to God for signs of further life; God answered his prayers in the form of a person whom he can’t stand.

    Last Man began airing in 2015, just as the wave of “prestige television” started to break and slowly roll back into its contemporary slurry. It was clearly influenced, visually and narratively, by the previous decade of boundary-pushing shows; Forte, who served as showrunner for the first season, has said in interviews that he and executive producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller envisioned the series on a cable network. But to its credit, Fox, desiring “something different” to fill a mid-season hole in its lineup, gave the green light to a show whose pilot featured one person and a lot of empty scenery. 

    At its onset, Last Man genuinely did not look like its single-camera sitcom peers, and when it hit traditional half-hour narrative beats, it did so with an acerbic bite. The primary goal of a sitcom’s debut season, other than establishing its voice, is to create a welcoming environment populated by characters that you’d want to watch every week.

    By this measure, Last Man, with its emphasis on negative space and a small ensemble (though the latter would quickly change), subverted traditional expectations. While the pilot introduces Phil as a sympathetic figure by the very nature of his loneliness, it doesn’t take long for his boorish nature to rise to the surface after he finds Carol. Meanwhile, within minutes of her arrival, Carol presents herself as a grammar-fixated scold who insists that Phil halt at stop signs despite the absence of any traffic. Phil feels emboldened by the collapse of society and Carol wants it to return to normal, and they subsequently both bring the best and worst out of each other.

    Forte admirably asked a lot of his audience in Last Man’s first and best season not only by featuring a main character largely defined as an irrepressible horndog with dubious morals, but also by embracing conflict as a storytelling engine. As fun (and funny) as hangout sitcoms can be, there’s a set limit to how much tension they can put their characters through until the good vibes collapse. Last Man, in sharp contrast, staked its entire thematic drive on the idea of friction and social discomfort being necessities for survival. Phil was driven to the point of suicide because he had no one with which to share his life. When he finally discovers other survivors, he learns that his own villainous personality has rendered the blessing a terrible curse. 

    Last Man successively adds more people into Phil’s orbit who test his patience. When the attractive Melissa (January Jones) appears in Tucson, Phil frantically tries to woo her despite “marrying” Carol for repopulation purposes, only for Todd (Mel Rodriguez) — a compassionate, likable plus-sized man — to come in and sweep her off her feet. Later, he discovers Erica (Cleopatra Coleman) and Gail (Mary Steenburgen) while out running errands and tries to convince them that he’s the only person in town before his cover is quickly blown.

    Once the handsome and capable Phil Miller (Boris Kodjoe) arrives on the scene, the original Phil, who is forced to change his name to his middle name “Tandy,” quickly becomes a pariah. By season’s end, Phil banishes “Tandy” from Tucson because of his antagonistic behavior.

    In the beginning of the series, Phil’s only responsibility was to himself, but as more and more people populate the community, his selfishness increases as he learns the burden of being accountable to others. It doesn’t make it easy to watch when Phil obnoxiously points out Todd’s weight to knock him down a peg in Melissa’s eyes or devises elaborate schemes to get laid. But they’re the actions of a man who has mentally regressed so far that he can’t imagine a world where he doesn’t get his way. In Last Man, Phil has to be continually shocked into integrity through the consequences of his own actions. 

    In the show’s most affecting sequence, Phil, seething with jealousy because Melissa and Todd are sleeping together, drives Todd out to the middle of the desert under very thin pretenses — visiting Phil’s “think spot” — so that he can abandon him like a dog. After getting Todd out of the car, Phil speeds off only to stop a few hundred feet away because his conscience won’t let him leave. At the same time, his selfishness stops him from retrieving Todd. He cycles through driving away, braking, and reversing the car as his better angels and inner demons duke it out for control, all while he screams in impotent rage and frustration.

    It’s Forte’s finest hour as a comedic and dramatic actor. When Phil shamefacedly returns to pick up Todd, his companion thinks the whole thing was a joke and insists that Phil is a nice guy. “I could be nicer,” Phil mutters.

    Alas, Last Man slowly devolved into gimmickry and stunt tactics throughout its four-season run. The cliffhanger endings that generated mystery in the show’s beginning turned trite. You could set a clock to the “sudden” arrival of new survivors, as well as their eventual “shocking” deaths or departures when it was time for them to be written off. (Plus, the joke of famous actors like Will Ferrell or Jon Hamm making extremely brief cameo appearances just so they can die on screen became tired very quickly.)

    It may have been because Forte stepped down as showrunner after the first season, but as Last Man progressed, Phil’s character softened into a lovable fool while the series became a less caustic, more sentimental version of itself, even as it tried to ratchet up its dramatic and emotional stakes.

    That’s not to say that Last Man didn’t continue to have its high points. The series could routinely mine brief emotion from a tragic demise or an abrupt reconciliation. It provided a showcase for January Jones’ comic talents. There were some excellent recurring gags involving guns and facial hair. But what began as a dark, yet affecting character portrait of a man being forced to confront the worst aspects of himself ultimately became a fairly typical ensemble comedy with a wacky setting. Like the fate of the world itself, the good times couldn’t last.

    The Last Man on Earth is available to stream on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Vikram Murthi is a writer and critic based in Brooklyn.