Last season’s pilot of Last Man on Earth was one of the most promising premiere episodes of the year, working from a darkly hilarious premise: Phil Miller (Will Forte) was thought to be the last person on the face of the planet, a notion that nearly drove him to suicide in the first episode.
Then Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schall) arrived on the scene, and creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller sought to create conflict between the last two people on Earth by making Carol an annoying, pedantic shrew. She was insufferable, and Phil Miller’s reactions to her were equally obnoxious and repetitive. It was a sitcom set in an apocalypse, and yet it couldn’t break-free from antiquated sitcom conventions. It felt like a great SNL sketch that had worn out its welcome by the third episode. Matters were only made worse once January Jones arrived, because it then became a show about Phil trying to sleep with the hotter woman without alienating someone with whom he had emotionally connected in spite of her character defects.
As more characters arrived, the series spiraled even further, and where all this potential once existed, Last Man on Earth became a show about who is fucking who and who they’d rather be fucking, a problem exacerbated by the series’ Joey Tribbiani problem: They took all of Phil and Carol’s idiosyncrasies and turned them up to 11. The unlikable characters couldn’t get out of the way of a conceit ripe with promise.
Last night’s second season premiere, however, allowed Lord and Miller to reset. Phil and Carol broke from from the other Tucson characters and finally took complete advantage of their position as the last few people on Earth. They exchanged their car for a Stealth Bomber, which they drove to the grocery store, where Carol used her gun to shoot out the glass and retrieve the necessities.
The message was clear: Carol had mostly given up her anal-retentive hangups, while Phil had made some compromises as well. The two briefly moved into the White House and took great advantage of the setting by sleeping in the President’s bed, playing with the statuary like Barbies, and rummaging through the White House closets.
Carol and Phil finally felt like an honest couple, and a likable one, at that. The idiosyncrasies were reigned in, and the premise better explored. Instead of being annoyed with one another’s character quirks, Carol and Phil finally embraced them in each other.
Conflict, however, is necessary to push forward the story, and here we see it in the isolation that Carol feels in spite of having a partner in Phil. She needs more than a husband. She needs a family, and she can’t resist the draw of her Tucson friends and the companionship it offers. Phil, meanwhile, doesn’t want to return to a place where he’s not wanted, and it creates a rift between the couple.
It comes to a head when a fight leads to a Home Alone moment, where Phil inadvertently leaves Carol behind, only noticing hours later that she’s no longer in the back of their RV sleeping. The two become separated, and with no phones, they essentially have the entire Unites States between them. Phil returns to Tucson in the hopes of finding Carol, but finds something more mysterious and intriguing: Their friends are gone, and their home has been torched.
It has all the makings of a comedic The Walking Dead plotline. The series is finally moving beyond the characters and dealing with external forces.
Meanwhile, Phil’s brother (Jason Sudeikis) continues to live alone in a space station, presumably unable to return home, which highlights another storyline with great potential.
Carol also made further reference to the deadly virus that wiped out humanity (though she did not explain what happened to the billions of bodies), highlighting another avenue to explore: What is the deadly virus, where did it come from, why are Phil, Carol and the others immune, and will that immunity extend to their offspring and, potentially, Phil’s brother, if he ever makes it back to Earth?
Great characters are obviously important to the success of any series, but character development should not come completely at the expense of ignoring the premise. Miller and Lord made a few bad choices in how they depicted their main characters last season, but the opening episodes walks some of those choices back. More importantly, it seems as though the series will also use some of the many options that the end-times provides. If season two can continue upon the trajectory laid out by the premiere, Last Man on Earth has the potential once again to be a great, unconventional network sitcom.