The Last Man on Earth: Network Television’s Newest Hope

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The Last Man on Earth is the best new comedy on network television. Soon, it could even be the best show on network television, if the writing stays fresh or some doomsday virus wipes out all of Hollywood except Will Forte. Judging by how the plotting naturally falls into place and more viewers are finding the “Alive in Tucson” signs, it may be the last, best hope for the faltering sitcom. The end of the world is a good place to be.

Sure, we’re still in television’s golden age, and in spite of a battlefield littered with multi-cam flops (there’s bound to be a new Cheers or Seinfeld somewhere, someday…), single cam shows like Modern Family, Brooklyn 99, and The New Girl can deliver quality mainstream entertainment to a variety of audiences. However, the ratings don’t often match with the critical mass, and as more and more people turn to alternative methods of entertainment (i.e. streaming), “good” Nielsen numbers for today’s sitcoms are not what they used to be.

With that in mind, there’s good news for this week’s Last Man, which was up 19% from last week according to Deadline.com. By putting a quirk-filled spin on the gloom and doom themes that drive today’s blockbuster dramas (think The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones), The Last Man on Earth could put the sitcom back in the type of “event” broadcasting, watercooler-conversation-generating status that is now usually reserved live musicals featuring the daughters of forgetful newscasters or Vince Gilligan twists. The key to The Last Man on Earth’s success is it’s ability to follow an organic structure you’d expect for a modern cable drama, while providing the audience with awkward situations for Will Forte to stumble through or blow up. This feels looser than the more ensemble-driven, 2 – 3 act comedies we’re used to, and in the long run this should pay off. With so much complex television out there nowadays, even the average viewer has been conditioned to expect more substance out of their storylines.

And Will Forte is perfect to lead the charge of unconventional comedic leads. As a cast member who’d tend to lurk in the offbeat wonderland that is SNL’s ten-to-one spot, his recurring characters, like “The Falconer,” show someone clearly on the edge trying to retain a sense of calm or normalcy. Hell, the guy’s trapped under a tree, sure his trained falcon has a short attention span, but he’s got to hold on to some grain of hope that Donald (his falcon) will find help and not get sidetracked at some bar or something along the way. His “Senator Tim Calhoun,” as well, talks in a soft-spoken, yet strained voice, addressing his many screwed up criminal activities while attempting to present himself as a viable candidate. Forte’s ability to play unnerved, socially awkward or disturbed characters with stunted personal development and terrible interpersonal skills, makes Phil Miller lovable in spite of all the childish, idiotic things he does on the show.

Ultimately, the most predictable thing about this show is it’s unpredictability – and while we’ve come to expect each episode to provide a game-changer or cliffhanger at the end – we can’t predict what’s going to happen next. Even the show’s title is misleading, and since the season’s structure matches the post-apocalyptic world in which these characters inhabit – an empty, used world in which life is just a day-to-day occurrence and plans are made as they come or go – the show is a place where everything is on the table. We’re only a couple episodes in and the biggest surprise would be if the show embraced any sort of predictable format. If that’s the case, I’m sure that too would come off as a well-timed development in Will Forte’s manically capable hands.

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