Making post-apocalyptic Tucson look like a fun place to live is no easy task.
But that’s the job Bruce Robert Hill has on Fox’s end-of-the-world comedy, “The Last Man on Earth.” As production designer on the Will Forte starrer, Hill’s efforts serve up whimsical takes on everyday life after a mysterious pandemic wipes out the entire (or, it turns out, a whole lot of the) human race.
“I love the post-apocalyptic genre a lot,” Hill says. “What I loved about the show is that it knocked the whole genre on its ear. Somehow they mined comedy out of it. It’s a dark place to be, after a pandemic, but once you read the script, it’s hilarious.”
Hill’s realization of the vision created by Forte and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“The Lego Movie,” “21 Jump Street”) has earned both rave reviews and impressive ratings with its innovative interpretation of Armageddon. Tropes of the genre are determinedly absent from the set. Instead of filling the frame with rotting corpses and overgrown plants reclaiming urban structures, Forte’s character, Phil Miller, lives in a Tucson, Ariz., that looks just a little too empty.
“They didn’t want it to be too gloomy,” Hill says of the notes he received from the three creatives. “If anything, I was prompted not to litter the street with cars and old garbage. It was just kind of like everybody left for the weekend and never came back.”
Keeping the tone of the series light can be quite a feat, however, when its thematic subtext veers into existential meditation on materialism and other profound topics. The protagonist’s chosen residence — an extravagant home in a gated community — serves a dual purpose, for example: Though the sizable pool in its backyard sets up one of the show’s raunchy running gags (Forte’s character uses it as a massive toilet bowl), the size of the house points to human excess.
“We wanted to play off the fact that we’re all worried about ‘bigger is better.’ With these McMansions, it’s kind of like, ‘Look what we’ve become,’ ” Hill says.
As with any good comedy, though, the main function of the McMansions is to reflect the personalities of the characters who live in them. The motley crew of pandemic survivors who unite in Tucson have little else in common, and the homes they adopt embody this.
“For Phil, we wanted something a little more masculine to kind of embrace the earth tones of the Tucson area,” Hill says. “Phil’s environment, obviously after the first few months he’s there, goes from this pristine environment with the artifacts he brings from all over the country to this completely slovenly layer upon layer of bottles and cans.”
Forte finds his foil in Kristen Schaal’s character, Carol, whose spotless home looks like a living Pinterest board. “For Carol, we wanted it to be a little bit more formal, a little bit colder,” Hill says. “She brings her own layer of craftiness.”
Hill found that he enjoyed bringing a dose of authenticity to the series’ unique premise. “I really love the fact that even though it’s comedy, they want it to be as real as possible,” Hill says of his collaborators. “Bob Gould is my decorator, and he did a great job of working on the nuances of each of the characters with his decorations and his decor.”
If Hill himself were to become the last man on Earth, he suspects he would follow Forte’s lead and hole up with priceless masterpieces. “Being an art director,” Hill says, laughing, “I would love to have some of those amazing paintings.”