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5 reasons sitcom Last Man on Earth is better when binge-watched

Phil Miller (Will Forte) is either the worst man alive or a fascinating TV character. Possibly both.
Phil Miller (Will Forte) is either the worst man alive or a fascinating TV character. Possibly both.
Fox

For the most part, I am an advocate of watching TV at a slower pace than the binge-watch. Binge-watching often robs individual episodes of their power, and it has a tendency to blur things together. That can turn a whole season or series into one giant blob, where all that matters is whether the ending is any good.

But there are some shows where a binge-watch actually reveals an ambition that's harder to see in week-to-week viewing. One such show is Fox's The Last Man on Earth, which completed its first season Sunday, May 3, and is now available in its entirety on Hulu Plus.

From week to week, The Last Man on Earth could be hard to take. Did it really expect viewers to willingly hang out with its protagonist, Phil (Will Forte), who would make a good run at the title of TV's Most Irritating Character? Yes, that was by design, but even when you know the irritation is intentional, it can be difficult to keep watching a show that forces you to spend time with such an unpleasant person.

In a binge, though, Phil's awfulness reveals itself to be much more as comedic. Once you're free of wondering why you're still tuning in — the simple answer is that you're too lazy to turn off autoplay — the character's childish impudence is easier to identify as one long joke that has its ultimate payoff when he's pushed further toward outsider status in the post-apocalyptic community he helped establish.

The Last Man on Earth might be a gimmick sitcom, in that it's built around a seemingly unsustainable, high-concept premise — but like the best gimmick sitcoms, it uses that premise to talk about other things.

Here are five elements of Last Man that are easier to appreciate when watching it all at once:

1) Its satirical take on horrible dudes

A high stakes game of Jenga on The Last Man on Earth.

Phil is whiny and constantly insistent on everybody paying absolute attention to him. Not exactly the guy you want to ride out the apocalypse with.

Fox

The Last Man on Earth's greatest gambit was in compelling viewers to sympathize deeply with Phil in its first half-hour, which featured the poor guy wandering Tucson, Arizona, convinced he was — well, look at the show's title.

Once he met other people — particularly Kristen Schaal as his eventual wife, Carol, and January Jones as Melissa — it became harder to see Phil's sympathetic qualities, because he was so terrible to everyone he encountered. It was tempting to wonder if the show was yet another story that wanted us to feel bad for a guy because he has to sleep with his wife instead of the attractive woman he just met.

But Last Man ultimately revealed itself to be less about whether Phil would get to sleep with Melissa, and more about whether he would come to be friends with any of these people. As more and more people arrived at the compound, Phil's irritating insistence on being the center of attention at all times became more and more recognizable as the grand joke it was intended to be.

And it wasn't hard to see that so many of the people he was acting awful toward were women who just wanted to move on with their lives, without dealing with his masculine strutting. The show doesn't go out of its way to point this out, but by the end of the season, it's clear that even Phil realizes he was the villain of this story.

Last Man's take on gender roles isn't exactly sophisticated, but in its best moments it feels like a parody of the very worst things about bro culture embedded within an otherwise normal ensemble comedy. It's a mix that improves as the show progresses, particularly once Boris Kodjoe joins the cast as a much better-looking, much more competent version of Phil.

In the season finale, Phil tells Carol, "I'm not a good person." It's the closest he's come to a moment of lucidity, but just a few seconds later, he says, "I'm a good person!" That's The Last Man on Earth in a nutshell: somebody on the cusp of revelation, forever falling short.

2) Its take on the idea of "likable characters"

There's a rather persistent idea that a sitcom should have likable characters, people you want to spend time with week in and week out, and who might be your friends in real life. But most sitcoms are secretly about horrible people, who shut out the others in their life and scheme to always get their way.

Last Man simply foregrounds this. Because there are no other people around, Phil's awfulness (and the other characters' awful moments) is not just a cute, quirky gag. It becomes, instead, a legitimate threat to the survival of society. In its own way, Last Man forces viewers to ask whether they want a character they always like, or a character who's always doing something interesting.

3) How repetitive it can be

Phil and Carol have a chat on Last Man on Earth.

Phil and Carol's arguments drive much of the season's too-repetitive middle section. But on a binge, the repetitiveness is easier to deal with.

Fox

The middle section of this first season is much too repetitive. Sure, there are funny gags in every episode, but the show quickly falls into a rut where Phil wants to sleep with Melissa but is stuck with Carol. At best, it covers the same ground too many times. At worst, it seems like the show is undercutting its own satirical message by presenting all of its women as no-fun scolds.

But in a binge, the most repetitive section of the season (roughly from episodes five through eight) blitzes by very quickly before the season moves on to its much more compelling end game, when more people show up in Tucson and shake up Phil's world even more.

And though I doubt the writers planned it, this portion of the season also works as a sneaky spoof of sitcom tropes. All of the characters behave as if they're stuck in a mid-'90s comedy about a husband with a nagging wife, and yet Last Man is acutely aware of how ridiculous this notion is when the planet is practically devoid of human life. When the reset button is pressed at the end of every episode, it's almost as if the characters have chosen to rebuild their society atop the ruins of Nick at Nite.

4) Its impressive visual qualities

Put simply, The Last Man on Earth is one of the most visually stunning comedies on TV. Granted, there's not a lot of competition for this title, but Last Man is always careful to make sure some of its best qualities are its visual ones. Even in the show's weaker episodes, it comes up with great sight gags, or features vast desert landscapes that underscore the characters' isolation.

Its best single image might be the one it keeps returning to, again and again, of the characters — who might represent the end of humanity — settled in together on couches around a roaring fire pit. It's at once a little poignant and a dryly amusing evocation of shows like Friends. Here we are, gathered and chatting, because we can't think of anything better to do.

Everybody gathers to chat on The Last Man on Earth.

Though set in a post-apocalyptic world, Last Man on Earth is often staged like a traditional sitcom, which adds to the joke.

Fox

5) Its subtle love story

It might not seem like one, but The Last Man on Earth is a love story about two people who only belatedly realize how good they are for each other. When I talked to Forte about season one, he told me that Carol was part of the show's premise from the start, and that he'd always hoped Schaal would play her. It's easy to see why once season one has ended. The two actors have great chemistry, but they also find ways to make their characters' worst qualities and foibles seem more human.

The first season of Last Man is far from perfect, but the improvement it shows in its last third suggests that all involved parties have learned how to make the show. And the series' choice to keep returning to Phil and Carol, whether separately or together, indicates its acknowledgement that its title is a lie. It has always been a show about the last two deeply flawed people on Earth.

When you're in love, it's easy to feel as if the person you love is the only other person on the face of the planet. There's something romantic in that, to be sure, but there's also something a little creepy about it. In exploring that notion, The Last Man on Earth may have finally found its best self.

The complete first season of The Last Man on Earth is available on Hulu Plus.

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