Somewhere near the midpoint of what turned out to be the final episode of FOX’s just-canceled The Last Man on Earth, Will Forte’s character, Phil “Tandy” Miller, lays out a shockingly sober sentiment to anyone who has followed the series through its 67 episodes. His message is plainspoken, for once: His group of post-apocalyptic survivors can’t just keep idling and cavorting their way through life as they have through four seasons.
“There’s an expiration date on the way we’ve been living,” he tells them. “And that date has passed.”
It’s a harsh, unexpected dose of reality. From day one, the characters of The Last Man on Earth have approached their own personal apocalypse—this one from some sort of deadly super-virus to which only a handful of people are immune—with the jovial, blasé attitudes of people who have never really felt the loss of their world with any kind of profundity. They lounge in kiddie pools filled with margaritas, drunk off their asses. They use automatic rifles as household tools, and fill their homes with priceless, defiled sculptures. They drive a B-2 stealth bomber down to the grocery store to pick up plentiful canned goods, which are all still miraculously sitting on the shelf despite the whole nation apparently having descended into panic (and then death) some time in the recent past. Rarely has the issue of “survival” even been a primary concern. And really, what else could we expect? The show is a comedy, after all. This isn’t The Walking Dead.
But as Tandy lays out the tough truth, it becomes clear that a little bit of that carefree attitude is finally being stripped away, to be replaced by maturity. It’s a brilliantly metatextual moment; an admission of the formulaic nature of the show’s seasons—arrive in a new location, use up resources, trash the place, depart—that promises its characters will, once and for all, begin to grow and change. It feels very much like the beginning of a next phase for The Last Man on Earth.
… and then a veritable army of mysterious masked assailants appears all around the group, propelling them into a season- (and series-) ending cliffhanger, as certain death looms large.
The Last Man on Earth was axed last week as part of a wave of cancellations that also included the likes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Expanse. The latter few shows have received the lion’s share of the attention and think pieces in the wake of their resolution (Brooklyn Nine-Nine has already been saved by NBC, to the joy of many ), and understandably so—Last Man was always more of an acquired taste. Its oddity was both its primary draw and most limiting factor, but there’s one thing that’s certain: It was the only show of its kind on TV, and for that reason alone, losing it is a shame.
To be sure, Last Man was never going to be an easy sell for either networks or audiences. Its brilliant pilot episode was like some kind of avant garde comedy one-man show that must have had plenty of viewers scratching their heads. In a half hour almost entirely without dialogue, it introduced us to poor Tandy as he traveled a nation seemingly bereft of a single survivor, running roughshod over the dignity of the old world. His character was a pathological liar, a man both despicable and uniquely pathetic, but somehow sympathetic despite it all. He embodied the banality of the average person, as well as the cruelty of a random universe—of all the people who could have been immune to the disease, it wasn’t someone who strove to rebuild the world, or at least felt some responsibility to steward what was left of it. Instead, it was just some idiot like Tandy.
Of course, Will Forte, brilliant though he may be, couldn’t remain the literal last man forever. And so, the show’s web of incredible comedy character actors began to grow—first via key player Kristen Schaal, and then via a slow trickle to create the show’s core group—January Jones, Mel Rodriguez, Mary Steenburgen and Cleopatra Coleman. Each of those souls, miraculously spared the fate that had claimed 99.99% of the population, brought their own equally hilarious sense of disrespect to what would be an impossibly dire and grim setting in any other piece of fiction.
It was that brand of gallows humor that made The Last Man on Earth tick. I loved its macabre running jokes, exemplified by its tendency to introduce a famous actor, only to kill them within seconds of first appearing on screen. Will Ferrell, Jon Hamm and Jack Black were all among the friendly faces who met their fates this way. It was a world where no one ever batted an eye or seemed perturbed by the grisly shuffling of a mortal coil. Instead, they just opened the next bottle of wine.
And that, of course, is what made Tandy’s monologue in the final episode, “Cancun, Baby!” so fascinating. It’s difficult to tell exactly what we were meant to take away from it. Was the show admitting that its own model had run dry? That a concept as alternatingly zany and grim as The Last Man on Earth was lucky to run for as long as it did? Or were the episode’s writers actually hinting at a true development in its characters that they planned to explore, if only they could make more episodes?
On some level, I’d like to believe it was the latter. There are elements of “Cancun, Baby!” that you could argue are well situated to make it a series finale, but just as many that seem to imply the crew was still hoping for more episodes. Leaving a base of operations and then deciding to put down roots in a new location? There’s some good finality in that, sure. But revealing the existence of a menacing new group of survivors—literally the only other large group we’ve seen in the entire four-season run of the show? That’s not something you do as a series finale. In fact, that’s not something you even write for an episode unless you’re reasonably certain that you’ll be returning to pay it off. If Last Man’s writers thought that “Cancun, Baby!” was their swan song, they could just as easily have ended the episode with the group simply setting up shop in a new area, hopeful for the future. I really don’t think they’d end it with the implication that Tandy, Carol, Melissa, Todd, Gail, Erica, their children, and Erica’s unborn child were all about to be murdered by masked marauders. “Baby murder” is a bit of a sour note for a finale.
And so, I ask with all sincerity: Will someone please save The Last Man on Earth? No, this isn’t a show likely to be picked up by another major network. In all honesty, it was something of a miracle it ever began life at FOX. But cable, perhaps? Hulu? Amazon? I’m not going to be picky, here. I’d just like to see Last Man get the ending that it deserved, rather than the one we’re forced to infer.
More than that, I want to see The Last Man on Earth truly reach the place that the ending of Season Four suggested it one day could. The show’s irreverence has made me laugh time and time again, but I’m just as interested in seeing a version of Last Man where the some aspect of the free ride these characters have enjoyed finally comes to an end. Food and gas have finally run scarce. Electricity has gone from an expectation to a luxury. To see the group actually struggle in the face of the apocalypse could open up an entirely new vein of comedy and give a new lease on life to the premise. All they need is the opportunity to explore some new ideas.
And as for that mysterious new group of survivors… well, there would be few outcomes more true to the spirit of the show than for those dozens and dozens of people to be obliterated utterly by some kind of catastrophe, moments after being introduced to Tandy and the others. Just sayin’, it would definitely fit the Last Man playbook. Perhaps after a scene of massive carnage, Chris Parnell crawls out of the killing fields, looks around, mimes an exaggerated shrug and joins the group? I’m just spitballing here, but I’d be lying if I said that didn’t seem like a strong possibility.
Just don’t let the story of The Last Man on Earth end where it has. Forte and co. clearly have ideas for where they wanted this thing to go next—don’t rob us of TV’s strangest, most unique comedy, just when it’s on the verge of taking a major step forward.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer. You can follow him on Twitter.