A Farewell to the Under-Appreciated Last Man on Earth
The other day, FOX casually canceled a bunch of shows, including beloved cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and the reaction was swift and furious. Petitions were made, hashtags were created, streaming services were bombarded with calls for help—it was amazing. It was so amazing that Brooklyn Nine-Nine will actually not die after all, and for that I am grateful, but in all the chaos, everyone forgot about one of the other casualties of the day: Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s much less mature but equally clever and kind younger sibling, The Last Man on Earth—canceled in its fourth season, on a cliffhanger, to inexplicably small outcry. Is there a petition to save it? There is in fact one urging Hulu to pick it up, and it stands at … just over 3,500 signatures.
The Last Man on Earth is (Let’s not use “was” just yet, eh? Too painful.) a show so profoundly weird that it almost defies description. Even its title was no longer accurate after the pilot. At the end of the incredibly well-done premiere episode, Will Forte’s post-apocalypse protagonist, Phil Tandy Miller, meets Kristen Schaal’s Carol, who is pointing a gun at him. “ARE YOU NICE?” she screams at him. Phil spends the next 66 episodes answering that question.
I’ll fully admit that Last Man got off to a shaky start, falling into sexist tropes in the first season as Phil struggled to adjust to a world that had women in it again. Most of the plot revolved around the possibility of Phil helping to repopulate the earth, and his desperation to do it with somebody hot, but come season two, the show stopped being about a guy trying to get laid in the apocalypse, and instead became a strange, sad, fart-joke-laden meditation on the nature of isolation and loss.
Phil settled down with Carol, and the two became a
disgustingly adorable adorably disgusting couple, while the other women on the show ceased to be simply attractive plot devices for Phil’s story and embarked on their own. Erica (Cleopatra Coleman) discovered she was pregnant and had to adjust her outlook accordingly. Melissa (January Jones) suffered a mental breakdown, and Gail (Mary Steenburgen) developed a drinking problem that gradually became more dangerous than amusing. Every time something funny happened, something else would take place to remind both the characters and the viewers that the Last Man world was built on the entire Earth’s grave. And yet, there was always hope. “This world can’t suck,” Carol gently explains to Melissa at a point when things look bleaker than ever. “I won’t stand for it.”
Indeed, perhaps the greatest thing Last Man pulled off was presenting a post-apocalyptic world where things did, in fact, not suck. It would have been so, so easy to have the show go full-on Walking Dead nihilistic, with death, danger, pointlessness, and everybody out for themselves. If anyone could’ve made that kind of constant bleakness funny, the Last Man team could, but they didn’t want to. Although it did sometimes approach that line, it always quickly dialed back, and nowhere was this more clear than it its treatment of women.
After the aforementioned awkward start, Last Man on Earth set about dismantling the tropes so often assigned to female characters in end-of-the-world stories. Although a great deal of the show focuses on the problem of post-apocalypse procreation, Melissa Chartres (Yes, her last name is pronounced “shart.” Yes, the show finds this incredibly funny.) is the one fertile woman who remains adamant that her womb isn’t for rent, population crisis or not. She harbors no hatred of children whatsoever, and is, in fact, by far the best caretaker of the one child survivor the group encounters, but she doesn’t want one of her own. Even when her own husband (Yeah, there are actually other men on the show!) starts to pressure her, she refuses to budge. “We felt it was super important to have a woman in this new world absolutely refuse to get pregnant,” writer Maxwell Kessler said in the Den of Geek behind-the-scenes series, which will also be sorely missed. “That even with the world as it is, someone could still be like, ‘Nah.’”
That’s not the only unusual thing Last Man opted to do with its women. In season three, close friends Gail and Erica share a kiss in what initially seems like it could be a dream sequence, but turns out to be real. Gail and Erica fast became arguably the healthiest and sweetest couple on the show, and there was no other relationship like it on TV: a young black woman happily married to an older white woman, raising a child together, without comment from anyone. With the demise of Last Man, two more queer women are gone from our screens, and that’s somewhat of a bitter pill.
Completing the quartet of fantastic Last Man girls was leading lady Carol, played to perfection by Schaal, who was clearly having the time of her life every second the show lasted. There have been a lot of wacky, weird, downright gross women on TV, but few seemed to be adored by their writers as much as the Last Man team clearly loved Carol. She was allowed to be every bit as hilarious and immature as her husband, another thing not often seen in female characters, and motherhood didn’t change her—if anything, it made her funnier. She’s absolutely amazing.
Was. Was amazing.
This is all to say that Last Man on Earth was (sigh) a remarkably subversive show. It even ended up killing the entire Trump administration, one by one beginning with Mike Pence, in a flashback scene. (No, really, but it caused zero controversy owing to no one knowing the show existed in the first place.) It took the question “What can humanity be after the most unimaginably traumatic event?” wrapped it up in a bunch of puns and poop jokes, and answered it in almost every post-season one episode: We’ll be fine, and we’ll love each other more fiercely than ever before. You don’t get much more subversive than that.
Vulture thinks Last Man’s ending was perfect because of the cliffhanger it left us with, and that’s a fair point. This was never a show afraid to challenge. One of Last Man’s best episodes, La Abuela, ends with a gun-toting old lady spinning a story of good and bad endings to her henchmen. “Good news, bad news, who can say? It all depends where the story ends.” As it is, Last Man ends with the words “ARE YOU NICE?” surely about to be shouted for a second time. Perhaps the result is good news, or perhaps it’s bad. Who can say? But this show was always about hope and optimism. So if it really was the last we’ll see of it ever, I choose to believe it was good.
But I’m still going to beg Hulu to save it.
(featured image: Fox)
Sarah Barrett is a blogger, writer, and hopeless geek who got into fandom at age twelve and never quite returned to the real world. She lives, works, and writes on Tumblr.
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