There’s nothing funny about depression. Depressed characters, however, can be hilarious, in the kind of deeply relatable way that connects to something intrinsically common in all of us.
Look at The Last Man on Earth, which premiered in two well-received episodes, “Alive in Tucson” and “The Elephant in the Room,” on Fox last Sunday. Network TV is often too chained up with crowd-pleasing to catch up to cable’s risks, but the first clue to Last Man’s potential was its pedigree. Producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s mastery of spinning meta commentary into Hollywood profit (with the Jump Street features and The Lego Movie) and star Will Forte’s penchant for demented optimists had fans clamoring for an overdue vehicle.
Forte plays Phil Miller (get it?), a guy who distracts himself from post-apocalyptic loneliness by upgrading into a McMansion and decorating it with raided Smithsonian artifacts…along with countless empty liquor bottles. After a few months with only his vast collection of athletic balls (à la Cast Away) for company, Phil discovers another survivor, but after a day around obsessive, insistent Carol (a perfectly cast Kristen Schaal), he may prefer forever friendlessness.
The fact that Phil’s not alone is out of the bag (not exactly unfaithful to the title), but there seem to be many more tricks up the show’s sleeve. Last Man is lots of fun so far, but smuggled beneath broad gags ranging from slapstick to toilet (or in this case, swimming pool) humor, there lies covert comedy about depressive extremes many can relate to. Phil’s self-destruction manifests in great sight gags like a margarita swimming pool—salted rim and all—but he shares behavior with millions who feel just as alone without any apocalypse. Meanwhile, Carol’s compulsions contrast with Phil’s lethargy in a way that transcends worn-out Odd Couple cliches to symbolize one of America’s most recognizable couplings: manic depression.
The Last Man on Earth is something potentially more thrilling than great cable TV: artists getting away with subversion on a major network. If the premiere is any indication, you should tune in to see Last Man sneak hilarious darkness through harsh Arizona sunlight. FL
The Last Man on Earth airs Sundays at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.