The opening portion of “The Last Man on Earth” recalls “The World, the Flesh and the Devil” — a 1959 post-apocalyptic movie starring Harry Belafonte — and when did anybody ever expect to read that about a Fox comedy? Still, the program’s melancholy tone, provocative concept and rumination on loneliness (and whether the only thing more infuriating than surviving without other people is negotiating with them) is mightily offset by a preoccupation with lowbrow flourishes like bathroom habits without functional plumbing. So while the one-hour premiere warrants further attention, that curiosity stops short of a wholehearted commitment to keep “Last Man” company.
A strange construct that has to be reviewed gingerly to avoid spoilers, “Last Man” stars and is produced and created by Will Forte, which means spending more time with the “Saturday Night Live” alum — in this character, anyway — than is likely prudent. Because while there’s a conscious riff on “Cast Away” (amusingly upping the ante on anthropomorphic volleyballs), Tom Hanks he isn’t.
When the series begins, it’s 2020, and there’s a vague reference to a deadly virus that Forte’s Phil Miller has somehow survived. So he crisscrosses the U.S. in an RV, looking for someone, anyone, who might still be alive, before settling with a sense of resignation in his hometown of Tucson.
Lonely and bored, Phil talks to God, engages in daredevil stunts to pass the time and gradually gives up on personal hygiene. As for his sins, like masturbation, the Almighty bears at least some responsibility for that sorry state of affairs, he points out.
There’s something to be said for a series that invites far more questions than it answers, and given the popularity of apocalyptic concepts (see Syfy’s “12 Monkeys” revival), it’s interesting to see the material filtered through a comedic lens, grim as the thought of mass extinction is. (Fox actually went down this path in the ’90s with “Woops!” but that really just used nuclear annihilation as an excuse to reboot “Gilligan’s Island.”)
While it’s been reported that others have been cast in the project, how they’ll be incorporated — including the possibility of flashbacks — is part of the suspense for viewers.
Still, it doesn’t give away anything significant to say that the series doesn’t fully begin to take shape until the third episode, which offers some interesting possibilities while squandering others. By that point, there’s a growing sense that Forte — who has made a mark as an actor in movies like “Nebraska” — might not have been an ideal choice for such an endeavor.
From a scheduling perspective, Fox wisely introduces the show with back-to-back half-hours, giving the project a bit more shape. Even so, the premise calls for a level of creativity from the producers (Forte is joined by directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord of “The Lego Movie”) that these episodes don’t consistently deliver.
That’s not to say “I wouldn’t watch him if he were the last man on Earth.” But like the fate of humanity within the series, while the future certainly isn’t hopeless, neither does it look particularly bright.