We’ve been obsessing over doomsday and post-apocalyptic life in pop culture, not least of all on TV, with titles such as “The Walking Dead,” “Falling Skies,” “The Strain,” “12 Monkeys,” and “The 100.” Also on the list: The nightly weather reports, which love to jigger up a snowmageddon even when it’s really only going to be a wee little flurry.
Perhaps we are rehearsing for catastrophe, doing psychological preparation, what with the actual threats of global warming, nuclear arms, ISIS anarchy, germ warfare, and the deadly urge to keep up with Kardashians. They’re all pretty serious shows; we don’t tend to imagine much humor in our lives after the end, unless you find decomposition and supply hoarding a laugh riot. That’s one reason to like the new Fox sitcom “The Last Man on Earth,” which premieres with two episodes on Sunday at 9 p.m.: It’s all about the apocalaughs.
And there are other reasons to like the show, which stars Will Forte from “Saturday Night Live” as the titular figure, Phil Miller, living alone in 2020 in a world decimated by a virus two years earlier. The series serves as a great playground for Forte, who gets his glorious freak on to show what being alone can do to a person. With mordant wit, the script has him dragging around world-famous oil paintings, the ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz,” and a few Oscars as he drives a bus in search of other living creatures. He wears Hugh Hefner’s pajamas — “I washed them,” he tells God — when he’s not in his underwear blowing up cars and other sundry items for kicks.
Forte is excellent in the role, with a natural ability to evoke both gonzo absurdity and pathos, which creeps in at a number of moments — during his bashful flirtation with a mannequin, for example. He’s like a little kid with a bottomless arsenal of toys, but then he is also profoundly lonesome. At one point, Phil talks to the TV screen while watching Tom Hanks talk to a volleyball in “Cast Away.” “Balls aren’t people, dude,” he says judgmentally. A few months later, though, he is bantering with a large ensemble of balls, including a golf ball named Anton. He also takes refuge from his sense of isolation by relaxing in a Margarita pool — yes, a kiddie pool filled with Margarita ingredients, with salt around the rim.
Midway through the premiere, life changes for Phil. This is a small spoiler, so stop here if you’re a purist: But the twist involves the fact that while Phil may be the last man on Earth, he’s not the last person on Earth. He stumbles across a woman named Carol, who, alas, is not exactly his dreamboat. Played by Kristen Schaal, Carol is a persnickety lady who insists that Phil use proper grammar and who wants him to stop at stop signs despite the absence of other cars. Phil has gone primitive, but Carol is holding onto civilized ways. They don’t make a very promising Adam and Eve.
I was impressed by “The Last Man on Earth, and hope it can continue to spin stories and character development out of its somewhat narrow premise. How will Forte and the writers keep the story moving forward in such a static landscape? Like the epic Jenga tower that Phil is constructing, the show is really quite impressive, but it could all fall down just a little too easily.