When we’re alone, it doesn’t matter how we act. We can throw around so much trash that it becomes carpeting, turn our swimming pools into toilets, and entertain ourselves by exaggeratedly damaging property (bowling with cars as the balls, taking a flamethrower to wigs, a steamroller to beer cans). None of these things inherently make you an asshole. But the second you subject someone else to the things that you carelessly do, your actions begin to exist in society’s three-dimensions rather than the id’s flat two.
That’s what makes The Last Man on Earth such an interesting case study: when we first meet Phil Miller, we rejoice at these antic behaviors, thinking, as he does, that it doesn’t matter if nobody else is around. When we meet the only other woman alive, Carol, we’re still tempted to think that Phil’s in the right, as we quickly see just how annoying Carol is. (She’s treated as the punchline to the joke about whether or not you’d sleep with someone if they were the last person on earth.) But as a third character, Melissa appears, it slowly becomes clear that Phil’s just a depraved maniac–at the very least, he’s held himself together far less well than others. (Melissa’s quirk: she’d go to coffee shops and write her names on the cups.) When Todd, a gentle fellow, appears to compete with Phil for Melissa’s attention, Phil literally contemplates murdering him, going so far as to drive him out into the desert and leave him there, before having a crisis of conscience and returning to pick him up.
Every comedy is, at heart, a comedy of errors, but this is the first to take it to such extremes with its loathsome protagonist (a joke made all the funnier by the reports that in real life, Will Forte is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet). Everything here is a matter of perception, and the show inverts itself, slowly building on jokes introduced early in the season to pay them off with the just desserts you at first weren’t expecting. That “Alive in Tuscon” sign that continues to bring new people to Tuscon? (Be careful what you wish for, right?) Well, Phil’s attempts to drive people away by changing it to “Moved to Tampa” nearly leaves him dead after he gets stranded up there; if only he hadn’t been an asshole, the show reminds us, he’d have gotten all the sex he wanted, thanks to two new exceedingly horny women.
Instead, he’s rescued by another man who goes by the name Phil Miller, and in the ultimate payback, is forced to go by his middle name, Tandy, after losing a high-stakes game of Jenga. When there were only two people, Tandy was the logical choice to be President of the United States–but only because Carol didn’t want the pressure. As society rebuilds itself, Tandy’s the last choice: the new Phil is everybody’s elected official, and not because he wants the job either, but because the group recognizes that they don’t want Tandy to be in charge of anything. He finds a cow: they appropriate it. He comes up with a system for settling grievances, they turn it against him. Even when he’s right, he’s wrong.
The humor of the show, then, is how stubbornly Tandy clings to the error of his ways. Even when he’s holed up in his room, an exile from the rest of the community, eating toilet paper “corn dogs” and leftover raisin balls (an inedible treat introduced in the second episode), he’s convinced that he’s the wronged person, and perhaps that’s where the comedy–the bleakest sort–comes from. By the end of the first season, screaming “I don’t need you, I don’t need any of you,” Tandy’s at least realized how wrong he is, and that what he wants is other people, however they come, without all of his strings attached. (And in an interesting role reversal, it’s new Phil Miller who hauls *him* out to the desert to leave him to fend for himself with naught but two days of rations.) In any case, the season at least ends on an optimistic note, with Carol rescuing Tandy, and the two of them heading off into the sunset to find the sort of society that they want.