The Last Man on Earth, which debuts on Fox Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, has a complicated relationship with silence. As its title should indicate, this is a post-apocalyptic tale. But as its star, Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte, and its placement in Fox's Sunday night comedy bloc would indicate, it's first and foremost a comedy.
It's not that American TV comedy is entirely uncomfortable with quiet, but it usually can't stand too much time without witty banter. Dialogue and music and audience laughter dominate the soundtracks of the American sitcom. And that's reflected in Last Man, which punctuates the proceedings with Forte talking to himself and pop songs gently bubbling away in the background.
But an eerie stillness creeps through anyway. Everybody else in the world is dead. Forte's Phil Miller wanders the wasteland, waiting to find someone, or maybe just waiting for death to deliver him. It's surprisingly funny, but it's also deeply humane. The series' producers have really thought through the emotional toll of being the last man alive, then figured out a way to fit that into the standard sitcom format.
It's the most unusual new comedy of the year, and it's also one of the best. Here are five ways the show takes big chances.
1) It isn't afraid to take its time
Last Man on Earth is funny, to be sure, but it's also not afraid to let time pass without lots of jokes. It has a supreme confidence in the novelty of its premise, the striking footage of its barren landscapes, and the inherent humor of Forte with a giant beard. That confidence allows it to spend plenty of time without hard, obvious jokes.
Now, mild quirkiness isn't lots of people's idea of a good time, so when Last Man needs to sell a joke or two, it knows how to make them count. The comedic set pieces in the show are appropriately big, and they provide lots of comic goodwill to carry you through the more wistful segments. The show has a very cinematic feel, appropriate for a series created by Forte, with a pilot directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord, directors of The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street series, and it lets its big-screen aesthetic carry it through sequences that might not be as obviously filled with big laughs.
That willingness to play around with empty spaces and with striking, cinematic sequences helps immensely with the next point.
2) It gets you to instantly care about Phil
It might seem surprising to modern eyes, but in the 1970s, the American sitcom was the best place on television to go for the sorts of character development we now regularly expect from the best dramas. Characters like Archie Bunker and Mary Richards went on journeys over the course of their shows, and even if they returned to the status quo at the end of every episode, the audience got the sense of glacial progress.
It's not that modern sitcoms completely lack character development, but their occasional overly rapid pace can make it feel as if the roles are barely developed archetypes, only rarely filled in by talented actors. I'm not going to tell you that Phil is as well-developed a character as Archie or Mary (he's not just yet), but I do feel like I got to know him and what motivates him in the first three half-hour episodes. (The first two of them air together as a one-hour premiere.)
Phil is lonely and horny. He's frustrated and creative. And above all, he's bored. He misses everyone and everything. Is this the most original take on the character type of the last man on Earth you've ever seen? Of course not. But it's striking how quickly the show gets you to care about him on a level deeper than "joke delivery mechanism."
3) It boasts some great visual gags
Roughly the first 10 minutes of this show are Phil laying waste to the empty world in creatively destructive ways. He goes bowling in a parking lot, and when that fails to sufficiently amuse, he graduates to bigger and bigger feats of destruction, until he's essentially bowling with cars.
What's great about these gags is that they escalate so perfectly, so you never once question the logic of how Phil sets all of this up. After all, he's got all of the time in the world. Why wouldn't he graduate to acts of wanton destruction surprisingly rapidly? And the series returns to this visual mayhem frequently throughout its first three episodes.
4) It also features great dialogue
Without spoiling the precise nature of that dialogue, all I can say is that this show is possessed of a supremely clever verbal wit that's based less in one-liners than in character foibles. There's one running gag through the first three episodes that continues to pay dividends throughout and will make you think twice about ever ending another sentence with a preposition.
5) It's a deeply warm show, suffused with melancholy
In its best moments, Last Man on Earth blends its superb wit with the inherent loneliness of an empty planet to achieve a bittersweet tone that filters throughout the whole show. The show's writers really care about Phil and whether he finds a way to be happy in this post-apocalyptic world he finds himself in.
It would be so easy for this show to get lost in all of the obvious jokes suggested by its premise, or to become too needlessly grim. Instead, Last Man on Earth is haltingly sweet, as if all it took for Phil to get in touch with his inner human being was for every other person on the planet to die. Granted, that's not exactly "feel-good," but it's about as close as you're going to get, given the show's trappings.
Last Man on Earth debuts Sunday, March 1, 2015, at 9 p.m. ET on Fox. It will move to its regular time slot of 9:30 p.m. ET beginning March 8.