'Last Man on Earth' is dark in a strangely sunny way

Will Forte is good company as the last man on Earth in 'The Last Man on Earth,' a new Fox sitcom

In "The Last Man on Earth," premiering Sunday on Fox, Will Forte plays apparently literally the last man on earth.

A "Saturday Night Live" veteran (MacGruber, Tim Calhoun, Greg Stink), Jane Krakowski's husband/impersonator Paul L'Astnamé on "30 Rock," and Bruce Dern's son in "Nebraska," Forte himself is the creator of the show. (He is shaggy and bearded here, much like his "SNL" character the Falconer.) Phil Lord and Chris Miller, of "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" and "The LEGO Movie" are his fellow executive producers; their names have also been pillaged for Forte's character, Phil Miller.

Despite taking place five years in the future and sharing the title and more or less the premise of a 1964 Vincent Price movie, it is not science-fiction. It's an abstraction, really, a comedy about existential cares and social mores in the absence of society. It asks what you do when it doesn't matter what you do because there's no one else around to care, or to care about.

Do you stop at stop signs? Eat with a fork? Park in a parking space? "The whole freaking world is a parking spot now," Phil will say.

You can go many ways with these questions, dramatically speaking. But the path followed here is comedy -- some of it broad, some of it smart, some of it low, some of it laconically slapstick, some it disturbing, some of it disgusting. It is dark, but in a strangely sunny way. (That it is set in the bright desert air of Tucson may account for some of that.)

As the series opens, Phil is finishing an unsuccessful trip around the country looking for other survivors, leaving the painted message "Alive in Tucson" wherever he goes. (Presumably he knows how to hot-wire a car and siphon gas, but whatever -- it's an abstraction, as I say. Also, Tucson -- not the most hospitable place to live out the post-apocalypse, what with the desert and all.

Rather than setting his shoulder to building a new solitary Utopia, Phil -- a 41-year-old temp in the old, peopled world -- he has been living off the fat of untended supermarkets, pairing Spaghetti-o's with $10,000 wine. As the pilot progresses, he goes from hopeful to indifferent to despairing, from chatting to God to challenging It. The mansion he has taken as his own, decorating it with masterworks of art filched on his road trip from useless museums, fills up with trash, his beard with crumbs. (He wipes his face literally with the Constitution.)

Phil fills one swimming pool with garbage, uses another as a toilet and turns an inflatable kiddie pool into a man-sized margarita, lining its rim with salt. He lies in it, and drinks it. ("There's really no wrong way to use a margarita pool.") He creates a gang of imaginary friends, chats up a mannequin.

It's not a show you'll want to hold to strict standards of possibility. The unexplained virus that has leveled humanity, present company excepted, has also seemingly carted off the bodies and left the place tidy for the aliens.(Animals, too, appear to have disappeared from this world -- no roving packs of wild dogs in this future, no adorable colonies of cats.) Apart from the substantial one-man mess that Phil creates, the world just seems like a Sunday morning before anyone's gotten up.

Things will change, of course, because, to paraphrase the poet, humankind cannot bear very much soliloquy. You could make a sitcom, technically, that simply watched a man passing the time in an empty world, but you could never get it onto network television. (And it would take a Chaplin or a Keaton to do it justice, really.)

Nevertheless, as sitcoms go, this one is unusually elemental. From the two episodes available for review, which air consecutively on Sunday, it is hard to say just where it's headed; there are times when it rubbed me a little the wrong way, but I suspect that might be intentional, part of the longer game. Phil is a hero who needs work.

Forte projects an innate normality, an averageness and equanimity, that keeps his characters companionable, even at their most extravagant, astringent or abnormal. Even when he's acting like a jerk, you can see that he's fundamentally all right.

Lord and Miller, who directed both of Sunday's episode, have taken care to make the series good to look at -- Christian Sprenger is the cinematographer -- so that even when Forte is alone onscreen, the world around him feels alive, whether it's the rocks and skies of southern Arizona, the streets and stores or the altar of empty bottles growing inside his house.

Robert Lloyd tweets the pre-apocalypse @LATimesTVLloyd

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