Fox’s new freshman comedy “The Last Man on Earth” is doing a few things spectacularly right. The jokes are funny, sure, and the cast is talented but what the writers really did that sets it apart from so many other of TV’s sitcom fleet was to start the story right in the middle.
The series’ premise begins exactly as the title states. We are presented with Phil Miller, seemingly the sole survivor of what we can assume has been some kind of apocalyptic event. We’re given no explanation of what happened to the rest of humanity, we’re shown no corpses or alien spaceships or gigantic nuclear crater. We’re just given Phil and the empty city of Tucson.
The world has ended. It’s over. That’s the premise, not the story.
Thank god for that. The last thing we need as an audience is another show holding our hands through it’s complicated ~mythology~, let alone a fast-paced character-based comedy. It’s 2015. We know what post-apocalyptic means. We can imagine a plague or a meteor or whatever aliens or angels took away all the other people because it’s been done to death.
This hasn’t taken away from the show’s environment. If anything, it enhances it by cutting away any need for us to analyze empty sets for the effects of whatever event ended the world. Who cares? What we care about is how our main character interacts with this novel environment. What does it tell us about him that he survives on preservative laden junk food from Tucson’s empty supermarkets? What does it mean that he’s assemble his group of “friends” (he talks to sports equipment with faces drawn on them) at a local bar? What priceless artifacts of the earth has he decided to claim for his personal use? That information is delightful and rewarding and wouldn’t be enhanced in the slightest by some smoldering wreckage.
Spoiler alert if that matters to you: Along the way Phil finds a few other survivors and, rather than discussing the intimate details of the Old World, they breeze through what their former lives look like and cut right into what their new dynamics will be. Who’s got feelings for who? How do you deal with the irritations of other people when you can’t simply walk away and meet somebody new? That’s an area that hasn’t been explored by contemporary sitcoms, even the disaster-based or high concepts ones.
More shows could benefit from trusting the intelligence of their audiences. More shows could let us skip the entire suspension-of-disbelief-process and drag you along with them for a fun ride. If the jokes are good and the characters are fleshed out and the interactions seem endearing or engaging then who the fuck cares what drew this group of people together?
I didn’t care about the history of The Office’s Dunder-Mifflin paper company or Friends’ Central Perk and I don’t care what emptied Tucson/Planet Earth.
Other stories should take note of this. I don’t care how to see how Batman or Spider-man got their powers yet again. I don’t care about what you did before the zombies came. I don’t give a shit why you have magical powers or how this lovable oaf got such a gorgeous bride. Just tell the story you actually want to tell and we’ll believe whatever you tell us to about the world you set it in.
Calling it “The Last Man on Earth” was all the set-up any of us needed.