Even were it not a strong show out of the gate, you'd have to give Fox's new comedy The Last Man On Earth, premiering Sunday night, at least this much: they know how to save on hiring extras.
Will Forte, a flexible and talented performer who's been looking for just the right thing since he left Saturday Night Live, did what a lot of people do now when they aren't getting the right opportunities: he wrote himself a television show.
Forte plays Phil Miller, who we find in an RV two years after "the virus" (no more is said about it, at least in the early going), sporting a scraggly beard, driving around with a loudspeaker, trying to figure out whether he is, in fact, the last man on Earth.
Once he concludes that he is, the show's central conceit kicks in: Now what? This early sequence is funny, weird, creative and deliciously playful, which makes all the sense in the world: the directors, and Forte's co-creators, are Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, famous for, among other things, The LEGO Movie, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs and the new 21 Jump Street movies.
The opener gives the impression of comedy minds genuinely at play, who have built themselves the best of both worlds: enough restrictions to spur creativity (initially giving Phil no one to interact with), and enough freedom to make the show feel open and different (initially giving Phil no responsibilities).
If you could get past how crushingly sad being alone after the apocalypse would be, after all, wouldn't it have an upside? Phil thinks so. He makes the only rational decision, which is to find the richest, fanciest house he can (they have great fun with the haul of precious collectibles he finds there) and move right in. Of course, there's no running water, so he has to improvise on a few important things, but he's got booze. He's got an inflatable pool. He's got his imagination. Presumably, as long as he doesn't break the world's last can opener, Phil can last a while.
This is one of the first comedies I've seen in a while where I bark-laughed at something in the premiere (it's a visual, involving a pickup truck and some bowling balls) in part for the pure, audacious delight it takes in fooling around. Despite the incredibly dark premise, what distinguishes the early stages of The Last Man On Earth is the light and sure-footed way that a lot of obvious logical questions are totally ignored (Where are all the, um, dead bodies? How do all the gas stations still apparently function?), while a lot of human questions (How would you combat loneliness?) are embraced and explored, without losing sight of the fact that it's a comedy, and it's supposed to be studded with gags.
There's one more thing: The people who make The Last Man On Earth seem to be concealing some very basic stuff that I didn't know about myself when I first saw it – stuff I would normally put in a review, but stuff that perhaps they'd like you to discover. So if you'd like to err on the side of discovering it yourself, stop here and watch the show. If you'd like another reason to give it a try, read on.
Still here? You sure? OK.
Perhaps it's obvious that no show is actually going to be just Will Forte talking to himself forever, so you may not be surprised when Phil's greatest wish comes true, sort of: he finds a woman who has also survived. Played by Kristen Schaal, she has not yet adopted Phil's attitude of embracing the absence of society: she still wants to stop at stop signs. She still longs for some kind of order. And, of course, she and Phil both find that while they are not instantly fond of each other, there is that age-old question: Would you touch this person if he/she were the last man/woman on Earth?
Schaal is terrific playing a woman just as messed up as Phil is, and once they start doing scenes together, the early promise of playing around with "What if you could do anything you wanted?" grows into a story that can also support questions about the function of other people – particularly the ones you don't choose. It's always hard to draw conclusions about comedies from pilots (I've seen one beyond the hour-long opener), but this is off to a very good start.
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