Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Last Man On Earth: Becoming The Person We Hope We Can Be

I decided to watch The Last Man on Earth after some of my friends commented how much they liked the show. A little online research revealed that critics and audience alike had quite a few good things to say about it.* Thanks to Hulu, I recently caught up on this quietly ascending show. 

The Last Man on Earth is precisely and appropriately named (the creators cite Life After People, The Omega Man, I Am Legend, and 28 Days Later as source material for the idea). After two years of searching, Phil Miller (Will Forte) concludes that he is entirely alone on earth. He drives to Tuscon, moves into a mansion, and resigns himself to an ever diminishing life of porn, booze, junk food and innovative demolition. 

He is given what some would think is the ultimate freedom – all the virtual women and real alcohol you want, with all the time in the world to make the adolescent inanity of Jackass into a reality. We (thankfully) don’t see the porn he uses – we just see how it cannot take the place of real people. We see all the alcohol he consumes – and it’s clear he is numbing the pain. This is the existential collapse of man. Phil’s painfully honest prayers and clever attempts at killing time alternate between poignant and amusing, but his inner life is falling apart as badly as his home. It's Ecclesiastes 1: "“Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless.'” When he acknowledges that he is giving up on life, we get it.

But it turns out he’s not the last person alive. There is at least one woman, Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal). Carol's quirky, nice, not unattractive…and incredibly annoying. God may have answered Phil's prayer, but…really? Carol claims you can tell something about a man's soul by the state of his house, and she sets out to clean up both of them. By the time their first day together is done, Phil can barely wait to drop her off back at her campsite. He’s no catch either, of course. He is a man with habits and issues that appall her, and rightly so. 

They aren’t sure if they are fated to be together or if they were simply forgotten by whatever force wiped out the rest of humanity. Should they try to be a new Adam and Eve and repopulate the earth? Neither of them are pleased with this idea, but the alternative – life alone – is hardly compelling either. Over several entertaining and surprisingly insightful episodes, they slowly get to know, accept, and even begin to like each other. Phil realizes he needs to step up and begin to be a responsible man. Carol realizes she needs to let go of her control issues. 

When they finally agree to build more than a friendship, Carol insists that they get married if they are going to consider having sex and raising kids. Phil claims it’s absurd considering that society and its structures have collapsed; Carol says, "It matters to me." She needs to know that he is the kind of man who will commit to something bigger than himself. Her standard is pretty simple: she gives him one thing - "One thing!" - to do right for their wedding. It's a low hurdle. He eventually clears it, and they begin what looks like an unusual but slowly deepening friendship – and maybe even love. 

And then one day, as they are driving through town, they hit another car. Out steps Melissa (January Jones). That’s where the most recent episode ("Raisin Balls and Wedding Bells") left us hanging.

I don’t know where the show is going. If it continues its current trajectory, it could offer a compelling and humorous story of love, sacrifice, commitment and maturity. It could also turn raunchy fast. At this point, I am hopeful. In an interview, Phil Lord (one of the creators of the show) said, 

“Will’s original pitch had an emotional character arc for Phil Miller that is an extremely universal thing… People really relate to Phil’s struggle. When you’re asking about what this guy’s journey is going to be like, we always talked about him as this person who is very flawed… somebody for whom the end of the world might turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him, and over 100 episodes, he basically turns into the person that we all hoped that he could be.”

In an entertainment world where people break bad and walk with the dead, it’s refreshing to see a simple comedy about someone who breaks good, walking away from death and toward life. They've left Ecclesiastes and are on their way to Eden. They're not there yet, but they are heading in the right direction.

* I purposefully write this blog as an attempt to look at the worldview of a story, not necessarily break down all the different elements within it. Plugged In has some good observations on the unexpectedly good elements as well as some content they see as "gross" and "gratuitous." Considering what this show could have been like, I think it exercises admirable restraint in some areas where other directors would have cranked the raunch factor much, much, higher. Nonetheless, there are certainly reasons to exercise caution. 

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