'The Last Man on Earth'

Will Forte stars in the new Fox comedy "The Last Man on Earth."

Fox

(Warning: Spoilers below.) 

Not every show on TV drastically changes course with the introduction of every new character. But not every show on TV is about "The Last Man on Earth."

Will Forte's Fox comedy started strong in March. Its pilot mined a one-man post-apocalypse setup for way more laughs than I thought it had in it. But there I was, consistently chuckling when Forte's Phil Miller turns a parking lot into a bowling alley with a pyramid stack of aquariums as pins, when he empties a full shelf of tequila into a kiddie pool, when he hangs stolen Monets and "Washington Crossing the Delaware" in the empty Arizona McMansion he annexed.

When he meets Kristen Schaal's Carol at the end of the first episode, though, it seems the party might be over. It sort of is — but not for the reason you'd suspect, given Schaal's resume of terrifically suffocating oddballs on "Flight of the Conchords" and "Bob's Burgers."

No, the party is over because, as we learn through Phil interactions with Carol, he is the oddball.

More to the point: He's a jerk. By himself with a blowtorch he's a hoot, but with another human being he's a blowhard. Carol's nagging and eccentricity and other gendered cliches explain his coldness to her to some extent, but there's no getting around the fact that Phil is equally stock in his aloof, "swipe left" guyness.

With their meeting, the elephantine question in the room for "The Last Man on Earth" becomes whether Phil and Carol will hook up to repopulate Earth. He, however, doesn't see that responsibility before him — he just sees a woman he doesn't find attractive enough to bed. Eventually, he "marries" and sleeps with Carol, but more so out of pity and monophobia than any positive human emotion. What a guy!

If Phil's shallowness didn't already make you resent him, his reaction to the arrival of third survivor Melissa (January Jones) will. You can see where the show is going from the minute the former model steps out of a limo Phil and Carol crash into at the end of the third episode. Obviously, he shows a sudden concern for repopulation.

Phil weasels his way into a tryst with Melissa using the same convenient rhetoric that "Dr. Strangelove" and Charles Manson used to draw up post-apocalypse scenarios where women outnumber men by considerable ratios: Once a lady gets pregnant, well, that's nine months the guy could bang-errr, repopulate with other ladies!

Yes, at this point in "The Last Man on Earth," its sexual politics are taking ugly shape. Poor Phil, he not only has to have sex with a beautiful woman, he has to also have sex with a less beautiful woman. Nevermind whether they want to!

To the show's credit, Melissa at first rejects Phil because she values her friendship with Carol more. But, when Carol gives her blessing, that little bit of agency only delays Phil from getting what he wants.

Before he and Melissa can do it, however, Todd (Mel Rodriguez) shows up. (Yes, the show's title is now a misnomer.)

Todd is overweight and bald, but talented and genuinely nice — possibly a long-lost cousin of Jerry Gergich. So he doesn't strike Phil as a threat to his polysexual paradise. But he is.

Before long Melissa romances him, and Phil can't wrap his head around it. He tries the hard sell, straight-up telling Melissa he's in love with her, but she tells him it's not mutual without a second of hesitation.

So does Phil accept this, and actually try to grasp his shortcomings and grow as a human being? Of course not. He pouts and tries to sabotage and embarrass Todd at every turn, whether it's unhitching the cow Todd pridefully tends to provide the four survivors milk, or making him take off his shirt to play tennis.

Todd's arrival is bad news for Phil. But it's good news for us, because it upends what was a textbook male sexual fantasy. Now, "The Last Man on Earth" rebukes that very same fantasy. The same sense of entitlement that made Phil think he could sleep with whomever he pleased, the same sense that makes men think they're somehow owed sex — it's being spanked.

The problem is, protagonist Phil being the show's spankee isn't as fun to watch as him being its lonesome scavenger. With Forte and fellow executive producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ("21 Jump Street"), it is well-written. With Forte, Schaal, Jones and Rodriguez, it is well-acted. The four nail all the right comic nuances of what, by its nature, is a relatively low-dialogue sitcom. But well-made cringe TV is still cringe TV.

As Phil, Forte is really the front line between the potential and the perils of "The Last Man on Earth." Few could make so miserable a character work — as much as one can, anyway — like the former "Saturday Night Live" star. Few can use shrill and schlubby tones in such equally effective measure.

What Forte needs to do to steer the show back toward fulfilling the promise of its pilot, though, I don't know. It probably involves more of the Phil who nearly committed suicide before finding Carol, the Phil who talks to not one Wilson, but a whole empty bar full of them. The Phil who's a human, not a horror show.

Regardless, "The Last Man on Earth" is a new world. It breaks from other post-apocalyptic shows on TV not just by being a comedy, but by eschewing aliens and zombies and, really, explanation. All we know is that it's 2020 and one year earlier, some virus wiped out everyone but Phil and company.

However, one thing the show does share in common with genre cousin "The Walking Dead" is that it's fraught with spoiler risks stemming from the mere existence of characters on an episode-to-episode basis. The people make the show.

Phil made it funny. Phil and Carol made it a little less funny. Phil, Carol and Melissa made it way less funny. And Todd made it more funny again, but somehow, simultaneously, also less fun.

So, in theory, just one more person — or one less — could be what saves "The Last Man on Earth."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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