Will Forte frequently sets up The Last Man on Earth as a series of elaborate moral experiments, challenging his characters to choose decency over that which is easy, selfish, or more frequently than not, sexually pleasurable. The earliest episodes presented a quandary that made life torturous for Phil Miller: If you were the last guy on the planet and couldn’t stand the only living woman, would you still be obligated to co-operate? And then, if a more appealing woman came along, would you be obligated to remain faithful? Whenever the cruel fingers of fate taunted Phil, his conscience inevitably kicked in after a few scenes, guiding him to the path of the righteous. Living a moral life might not always be the most fun, but post-virus, it’s the only way to ensure you won’t be a social pariah.
Phil makes yet another brush with temptation in “Fish in the Dish,” though the ethical underpinnings are a bit murkier than usual. Carol’s thirsty for a baby, and though she and Phil have spent six months enthusiastically having unprotected sex, no dice. Carol begins a layman’s investigation into conception complications, and the (outdated) fertility tests pretty definitively rule Phil to be impotent. When Phil decides to pass off Todd’s positive sample as his own — Todd’s good-natured agreement to provide his best pal with a piping hot load of semen is comic gold, by the way — it would appear that the skunk in need of dunking has gotten back to his old tricks. However, there’s more beneath the surface of this particular deception than it seems.
When Phil does something reprehensible, it’s usually because he’s catering to his basest desires at the expense of others’ needs. But Phil has nothing to gain from pretending not to be infertile, and this particular con will be his most difficult to play out yet; his seminal switcheroo comes not from a place of self-involvement, but of insecurity and denial. As he tries test after test, the prospect of infertility frightens him more and more. Carol is sensitive to this, and is more than supportive at every occasion, but nevertheless sees the writing on the wall. Phil, being much closer to the situation, has a difficult time accepting this fate. And so he claims Todd’s positive test as his own both as a form of self-delusion and an act of altruism; Phil clearly wants to give Carol the life he believes she deserves, and realizing he’s physically incapable of doing that can really put the zap on a guy.
It’s all worth it, of course, because the fertility plotline delivers some triple-fire-emoji material onto the eminently capable Kristen Schaal. Carol’s book of “female em-porn-ment” is clearly the handiwork of a madwoman — and it’s only slightly less deranged than the erotic nightmare that is her homemade “masturbatorium,” complete with hideous portraits of notable and otherwise trailblazing women. Go ahead and take a gander at tennis champ Billie Jean King while you wring one out! Schaal sells the hell out of her dialogue, her total guilelessness rendering this insane gesture of goodwill relatively plausible. She tears into lines like “I think it’ll be fun, like a Genital Mad Libs!” with such untethered brio that her revolting mural is actually a little endearing. Carol’s a fun character, certainly the most outwardly crazy of the gang in Malibu, and Schaal not only delivers on her rich comic potentia,l but also maintains a nice foundation of real emotion. The process of deciding to conceive a child and coping with the inability to do so is serious business, and both Phil and Carol show a real capacity to be wounded.
Todd, meanwhile, ends up in a far more Phil-ish situation than Phil. His deception results from a good ol’ fashioned lack of self-control, as he gets in touch with his inner sex addict. Todd appears to be unable to stop himself from putting the mack on any female organism with a pulse, even as he spends every moment away from the various women wracked with anxiety, guilt, and self-loathing. It’s a pretty slimy move, but he displays more compunction about it than the Phil of season one would have — it was not too long ago he practically tried to trick Melissa into sex. Mercifully, writer Liz Cackowski resolves the issue by the end of the episode, making way for Mike’s introduction to the group.
Mike could not have arrived a moment sooner. It wasn’t quite there yet, but “Fish in the Dish” gave slight hints of how a six-player ensemble might get weighted down by fatigue, and so, his presence throws a wrench into the machinery of this small and unstable community. New blood has always brought out the best in The Last Man on Earth, disrupting character dynamics and creating tension as they compete for resources, respect, and mates. How Mike will fit into the delicate social ecosystem in Malibu will be a fascinating question to answer, and it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that he should arrive just as Carol begins to accept that she won’t bear Phil’s child. Perhaps episodes to come will see her settling for the general Miller bloodline, but it looks like the biggest resistance to Mike’s appearance could be his brother, who greets him with a graceful, slow-motion dick-punch. There’s bound to be some fraternal rivalry in the mix — Mike’s a goddamn astronaut, and Phil is, well, Phil. While he must feel some relief to learn the brother he just finished grieving is actually alive, it’s only a matter of time until he gets petty and resentful. You know, just how we like him.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions:
- For someone who claims to have smoked a lot of pot, Phil does not talk like someone who has smoked a lot of pot. Helpful tip: Anyone who uses the term “narc” and is under the age of 40 most likely does not do drugs.
- If that Hellraiser reboot ever gets off the ground, Kristen Schaal would make for a gamely horrifying Pinhead.
- This half-hour was directed by Jared Hess, best known as the mind behind Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, the recent Don Verdean, and other films about small-town weirdos. He’s a fine fit for The Last Man on Earth, even as he trades his signature deadpan style for the slightly more animated tone that Forte has cultivated. (Fun fact: Hess also directed Masterminds, a comedy vehicle for Jason Sudeikis, Zach Galifianakis, and Kristen Wiig that’s been sitting in the can since late 2014. It’s currently scheduled to debut on September 30, and maybe it will! Maybe it won’t run anywhere, ever! Who knows? Showbiz is so exciting!)