Andy Samberg and Will Forte have come a long way since dejectedly eating heads of lettuce in "Saturday Night Live's" first-ever Digital Short.
Twelve years later, the Studio 8H alums are the stars of Fox comedies "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "The Last Man on Earth," which are in their fourth and third seasons, respectively. And both average-performing shows are rumored to be on the bubble for renewal by the network.
For a pair of such oddball comic actors, though, Samberg and Forte's shows have been making the case for additional seasons in the same unlikely way: affecting dramatic stories. Turning to their deeply talented supporting casts, "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "The Last Man on Earth" have delivered some of their finest episodes and character arcs in 2017. This could just be a sign the two Fox shows know they're in ratings trouble, or it could be a sign they have more worthwhile stories left to tell and deserve a chance to do so.
With "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," the case for renewal is a little more acute: The Golden Globe-winning show's most recent episode, "Moo Moo," may have been its best yet. Its main storyline sees Terry Crews' Sgt. Jeffords face a dilemma after being baselessly stopped and arrested outside his house by a white officer from another precinct (the reliably hateable Desmond Harrington, of "Dexter").
After the officer smugly dismisses his wrongdoing, Jeffords and Andre Braugher's Capt. Holt discuss their next move. Though the avuncular Holt's advice to drop the issue in the interest of Jeffords' career at first seems like it's going to win out, Jeffords responds with a heartfelt argument for reporting the incident that draws on his do-gooder reasons for becoming a police officer. The scene reveals dramatic depths few knew the musclebound Crews had and, more importantly, gives surprisingly thoughtful treatment to issues of systemic racism in America's police force.
"Moo Moo" contains some other, slower-burning reasons "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" deserves a fifth season. The relationship between Samberg's man-child Detective Peralta and Melissa Fumero's tightly wound Detective Santiago continues to be surprisingly fun to watch unfold, not the show-killer such lead romances tend to be. And Stephanie Beatriz' aloof Detective Diaz warming up to her weirdo squad is a touching subplot with payoffs yet to come. The show still may not be a laugh riot, but it can be counted on to entertain you — and, with its last episode, move you.
"The Last Man on Earth" does deliver those gut laughs, and yet it also breaks much more forcefully from the sitcom mold. It mines its post-apocalyptic premise for storytelling gambits found rarely, if ever, on network TV: an almost wordless pilot, episodes exclusively devoted to single new characters played by Jason Sudeikis and Kristen Wiig (who still hasn't resurfaced after her rollercoaster 20-minute origin story), and guest stars like Will Ferrell and Jon Hamm killed within seconds of their appearance (the latter in a great intertextual "Mad Men" gag).
But a few terrific arcs this season have pushed "The Last Man on Earth" further, and more bravely into serious terrain. Mary Steenburgen's Gail getting trapped in an elevator unbeknownst to the rest of the show's ensemble and January Jones' Melissa falling into near-catatonia without her psychiatric medication address suicide and mental illness with the humorless cold of prestige dramas. The latter has been Jones' best work outside "Mad Men," and mature handling of a subject played all too often for laughs or surface-level compassion. A certain guilt tugged at its only comedy.
Forte's Tandy is still a doof, to be sure, but his sad clown deftness has found yet another showcase with the introduction of Jasper, a mute child whom Tandy desperately tries to disarm. He finally speaks after a six-month time jump in "The Last Man on Earth's" most recent episode, which paid off its use of the overused narrative device with a few smart, playful jokes. With a pair of imminent pregnancies and the arrival of Wiig's despondent survivor, the show joins "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" as one that has recently earned at least a little more life on Fox.