Last Man on Earth is its own worst enemy. Its narrative begins at an end (the end of the world), and it doesn’t seem to know where to go from there, because it’s already killed off all the extras and most of the supporting cast. The entire premise of Last Man on Earth necessitates stagnancy, boredom, and a heavily pruned population, and it has had a hard time finding nuance. The jokes are either hackneyed (farts) or reliant on very specific character traits that are funny at first, but lose steam quickly (Kristen Schaal’s Carol is a weirdo, Will Forte’s Phil is a hapless loaf who thinks he deserves more than this, okay?). The plot itself has circled down a drain of doubt and hesitation since its first episode: anything goes, nothing matters, anything goes, nothing matters. With its second season, Last Man on Earth needs to find a way to expand its outlook on its own universe, otherwise every episode this season will feel like a rerun of the first.
What happens now?
Last season ended with Phil being kicked out of his hometown of Tucson by a group of six other survivors and told never to return. Carol, because she is generous and oblivious, leaves with him. By using displacement as a starting point for season two, Last Man on Earth finally loosens the boa constrictor-like restraints tightening around its self-defeating narrative structure. The setting has shifted, and with it, we get some hope that the cyclical, redundant course of the show will shift too.
For one thing, Phil and Carol are now traveling around the country. The change of scenery hints at a ripple effect: if our hero Phil is no longer stuck in the massive Tucson mansion with a swimming pool full of shit in the backyard, maybe we’re not stuck there either. Last Man on Earth’s lifeline has always been the way it gradually introduced new characters — because of the show’s isolated quality, the mere appearance of another person has been enough to change the dynamic — and it looks like season two will continue to deliver on that front. There is at least one new character introduced in the first pair of episodes, and, in a plot decision that makes change seem inevitable, last season’s finale introduced a character in outer space.
But a new setting alone won’t create many more opportunities for humor if the characters still can’t really do anything. It’s a problem at the very core of the show: there are only so many times we can watch Will Forte break into an abandoned grocery store and take a can of Cheez Wiz to the face. For now, the show’s comedic element remains the same as it ever was: a grating slapstick end-of-days schtick starring people you’d hate to be stuck with when the apocalypse actually came. In the first two episodes of the new season, the show ticks off all its old tropes: the obligatory charade of talking to inanimate objects, Carol bedazzling something, Phil screaming into the sky, Carol warping her sentences to avoid ending them with a preposition, and Phil being a sad asshole. As with season one, there are some genuinely funny moments buried in there, like when the sound of actual gunshots are drowned out by the gunshot noise in M.I.A.’s "Paper Planes" blasting from Phil’s truck, or when, while having sex in the White House, Carol asks Phil if he’s "filibustering" (get it?). But the same dried out jokes are still there; unfortunately, you couldn’t miss them if you tried.
Perhaps the biggest failing of Last Man on Earth is its refusal to mine the world it’s created for a below-surface-level take on an idea that’s almost implicit in its existence. Here are a group of humans, alone on this planet, with no responsibilities, no jobs, no friends or family, and apparently no imminent threat to their lives. There should be a lot of weird existential shit (and loneliness beyond sex) happening. And sure, some of it probably needs to be avoided for comedic purposes, but a more intelligent show would’ve found comedy in the strange, crushing helplessness of it all. Sometimes the series starts to explore this — like with Carol’s manic and rigid adherence to the law in a lawless state — but it more often takes the easy way out with a joke about the weird food you have to eat when no restaurants are open. There’s an alternate and more interesting universe in which Last Man on Earth takes time to unpack the reality its characters are stuck in; instead, the universe is apathetically plopped down in front of us like lukewarm lunch meat on a cafeteria tray.
A more intelligent show would’ve found comedy in the strange, crushing helplessness of it all
Last Man on Earth has yet to prove it can do anything with a light touch, but the beginning of season two contains its most careful decisions to date. Phil gradually warms to Carol; Carol becomes less of a punchline. But the show still plods with a heavy, torturous feeling that nothing is actually happening. At least there are already a few things to look forward to: the aforementioned astronaut, and the return of the margarita swimming pool.