Watching a comedy about a global pandemic set in 2020 probably sounds like nightmare viewing and an unlikely option to add to your social distancing/self-isolation/quarantine watch list. You can turn on the TV at any given moment and see the real-life version on every news network, but for the accidentally prescient depiction of this scenario, there's 2015 sitcom The Last Man on Earth.
Running for four seasons, it tells the story of the so-called last man on earth, Phil "Tandy" Miller (Will Forte) and those he finds along the way. Tandy is a self-absorbed slob who before the start of the series has spent a year searching the United States for other survivors of a deadly virus but come up short. He is far from the last living person; it just takes a while to find people in a country this big.
End-of-the-world scenarios often result in chaos and selfish acts — something we are all too aware of at the moment. The real monsters normally come from within, even in the case of flesh-eating zombies. On The Walking Dead, our merry band of survivors is normally in more danger from the humans with guns, other weapons, and nefarious motives.
The undead act on instinct and impulse, but so do the people who are protecting their self-interests. Kindness is in short supply because conflict is required in drama, but just as in real life, there are good souls among the greedy. And in The Last Man on Earth, self-motivation and altruistic acts exist in equal supply as more survivors are discovered throughout the seasons.
When Last Man first aired, I was one of the viewers who found Tandy's antics to err on the side of unbearable. It wasn't the (literal) toilet humor that turned me off but rather his more boarish qualities, which were dialed up to 11. Occasional selfless acts were followed up by his lack of filter and social grace. Even limited society needs boundaries to work, and his character had a tendency to rub newcomers the wrong way. With such a small cast at the start of this journey, it emphasized his unlikable qualities and his inability to tone down his impulses.
This was something star and creator Will Forte discussed in a recent GQ interview: "There would be times that I think we went a little over the top. We were just having fun and it maybe alienated some people who might have liked it, who dropped off on the show and didn't come back."
The first part of this sentiment was true in my case as, even in 2015, Peak TV was already giving viewers too many choices, which meant I ditched Last Man early in the game. Sitcoms are often a little rough around the edges when they begin; several of my favorite comedy series only have a so-so first season. Sometimes jokes and characters fall flat, taking time to iron out the kinks. My husband continued to watch, repeatedly telling me the concept and characters were hitting their creative streak.
When I tuned back in for the Season 2 premiere, it was clear he was right and even though Tandy was still the same untactful guy, the balance had been evened out by the larger group dynamic. Sometimes you stick with a show long after the quality has dropped out of some sense of loyalty, but there is also something to be said for one that maintains its essence but manages to improve upon the season before it.
For a show that is about the very few survivors, Last Man managed to expand (and reduce) its cast via some very novel methods, which drew some heavy-hitting guest stars, including several Saturday Night Live alumni and a recent Oscar winner (and SYFY FANGRRLS favorite). Much as in other post-apocalyptic scenarios, death haunts these characters — so while there are big-name actors, most of them are dispatched rather quickly. And as with The Walking Dead, the gang come across dangerous figures who cannot be trusted.
Death is all around them, which is not something the show glosses over, and there are major losses to contend with. Medical issues, terrifying guys with weapons, and accidents are all endured along the way.
Each character hits rock bottom at one time or another, and sometimes it takes more than a pep talk to make it better. No one is perfect; each person has a breaking point and requires a different method to get them to the other side. Despair is baked into the loneliness Tandy experiences in the pilot episode, but hope is briefly restored when he meets Carol (Kristen Schaal).
Mental health is explored in a nuanced manner across a variety of narratives, which include suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and the side effects of being without medication and therapy. It sounds pretty heavy, but the writing walks the line between a more emotional core and injecting humor into the darkness.
In a society this small, people still rub each other up the wrong way and lean into bad habits, as well as pettiness. They also fall in love and create a new family with those they find along the way. Despite their bad experiences with dangerous men, the capacity to greet newcomers is never lost — even if they come to regret some of these choices. Self-preservation is important, but so is the act of opening your arms to someone in need.
These warm-hearted acts are baked into the texture of Last Man, which balances toilet gags with some pretty philosophical moments about why the human race deserves saving. Yes, you can have both; somehow this show aired on network TV. It is mind-blowing that a series this wonderfully out-there lasted as long as it did, and I am still bereft that it concluded on a cliffhanger.
Depictions of pandemics often lack jokes, and while there are plenty of heroic and stoic versions of this scenario that are currently seeing an upsurge in topicality, The Last Man on Earth leans into the absurd and gallows humor. It might not be to everyone's tastes, but if you want to watch an on-theme comedy, Will Forte and the very talented ensemble deliver comedy, some useful advice about what not to use as toilet paper, and a deep well of kindness — all of which are welcome in this version of 2020.
The Last Man on Earth is free to stream for Hulu subscribers.