Note: The following contains spoilers for Season 2 up through Sunday night's episode.
The post-apocalypse is a vast and boundless playground in The Last Man on Earth, a comedy about the seven or so survivors of a planet-wide epidemic that obliterates virtually all life. The Fox series’s taste for fanciful excess has produced some of its most defining scenes: the haul of stolen treasures (Monets, Van Goghs, a T-Rex skull) in the pilot, the game of Jenga with bullion bricks in the current second season, and the gleefully decadent gifts in last year’s Secret Santa episode, in which the group gave each other J.Lo’s green Grammy dress, ZZ Top’s Eliminator car, and Pitbull’s mega-yacht. The luxury boat was subsequently blown up by Phil/Tandy (Will Forte, also the show’s creator), the attention-seeking kid everyone tries to avoid during recess. (Phil is renamed Tandy after a second Phil, played by Boris Kodjoe, shows up.)
Last Man’s premise is simultaneously a no-brainer and a counterintuitive experiment for a comedy series. The show is an exaggeration of the sitcom format, taking place in a self-contained universe with virtually no other people apart from a core cast that twists itself into various romantic permutations. But there’s no getting around the desolate fact that everyone these characters have ever known is now gone, and without medical proficiency, they’re just sitting ducks for death to pick off, as the two sudden fatalities this season suggest. Game of Thrones would gladly give up a pile of arms to be that bleak.
The first season wasted no time in changing the meaning of the show’s title, from lone survivor to the loathsome scourge of “not even if you were the last man on Earth” fame. Tandy’s entitled tantrums became so contemptible that he was eventually ousted from the Tucson settlement he’d founded, leaving the second season — with new showrunner Dan Sterling taking over from Forte — to detail his redemption. After fulfilling that obligation with an absurdist zest, the series’s Malibu-set sophomore year has fleshed out as an ensemble (somewhat) and a black comedy (quite a bit more) by flirting with despair. While the haphazard love triangles yield diminishing returns, greater engagement with the characters’ actual situation has made Last Man funnier (in different veins of humor), more moving, and more unpredictable in its loopy second season.
In sleek contrast to most post-disaster dirtmongers, Tandy and the gang live the high life, give or take the occasional cricket casserole. Before his abrupt demise from appendicitis in December’s remarkable mid-season finale, Phil II had repeatedly warned that their lifestyles in arid Arizona and coastal California were unsustainable. As he’d predicted, food supplies ran low and gasoline congealed, but hardly anyone bothered to learn new survival or even basic life skills. (That semi-finale also featured one of the show’s darkest and most hilarious gags, when Phil and Todd, played by Mel Rodriguez, dug up the still-fresh corpse of one of their own for surgery practice, then had to scurry to hide the body from the recently deceased's former lover/would-be slasher.)
Part of the show’s wish-fulfillment appeal lies in the characters doing whatever the hell they want, whether that’s driving a truck through the grocery store because they’re too lazy to actually walk around the aisles, or crashing a car rigged with explosives into another to play Michael Bay. But the longer they lounge around drinking or reading old magazines or bedazzling everything in sight, the clearer it is that these are shell-shocked people who have had no choice but to cocoon themselves in defiantly hedonistic denial.
Vacation is fun, after all, but only if it eventually ends. Far from remaking civilization, the survivors merely wallow in its remains. But when Phil II’s ex Erica (Cleopatra Coleman) becomes pregnant, Tandy and his wife Carol (Kristen Schaal) discover he’s infertile, and the group’s subsistence is no longer guaranteed after the death of their do-it-all alpha male, the characters seem like they’re on an unavoidable path to figuring out the purpose of their existence. Hopelessness also afflicts Tandy’s brother Mike (Jason Sudeikis), an astronaut stuck alone in space while Earth underwent mass extinction in a silly yet largely grim story line that fits in perfectly with the rest of the show.
But Last Man is just as interested in how a smattering of random people who’d never known each other are forced to get along after the worst happens. This season’s early experiments with postapocalyptic justice proved much more successful than the ongoing relationship dramas, which betray the show’s over-reliance on heteronormative conflict. When Melissa (January Jones) instantly hooked up with Todd, and Erica and Gail (Mary Steenburgen) were ready to jump Phil I and Phil II’s bones ASAP in Season 1, it made sense as a consequence of their loneliness and pent-up horniness. But now that three years have passed (the show jumped from 2020 to 2023 between seasons), the bed-hopping feels desperate and untrue to the minor characters, who still only connect on a genital — and not on any emotional — level. Meanwhile, the empty talk about the importance of female friendship mostly remains just that.
Phil II’s death well illustrated the fragility of life in this world, but he got even less of a mourning than near-miss autopsy subject Gordon (Will Ferrell), a character who enjoyed, at most, a whole minute of screen time. Though the characters are now more than the foils to Tandy that they were in Season 1, they’re still mostly just tracings of people rather than the real thing. Last Man often squanders its talented performers, because the comedy comes from the situations, not from the people within them.
And yet the show is often so clever that it should satisfy those who require only a morsel of heart (or none at all) in their entertainment. The scene of Mike and a paranoid boat-dwelling survivor (Mark Boone Junior) wrestling with one another in hazmat suits on the beach made for an inspired visual, and Carol’s artwork continues to be one of this season’s highlights. Last night, the loony artist created a masturbatorium for her husband, where he can pleasure himself the way a man “should” (i.e., not with “molested” girls in magazines). Margaret Thatcher, Condoleezza Rice, and Billie Jean King appear as waxen candles on a mural, as does a jeweled collage of baby heads that dot the canvas like pimples colonizing a pubescent face — so that Tandy knows what he’s ultimately touching himself for. He probably won’t find relief in that sparkly tableau of decapitated horrors, but at least there’s one person who’s found comfort in knowing what she wants.