What sort of an actor is Jason Sudeikis? He never really had a stock type during his lengthy tenure on Saturday Night Live, where he was often left to handle straight-man duties or inhabit otherwise normal characters with an edge of quirk, such as his affable Satan, a regular face at the Weekend Update desk. (He was also renowned for his skilled dance moves, though that's neither here nor there.)
Sudeikis has recently transitioned into a newish phase as the harmless romantic lead in such rom-coms as Sleeping With Other People and the upcoming Mother's Day, having already comfortably stepped into this role as the too-perfect-to-be-true Floyd on 30 Rock. But even if he's poised to move into a steady diet of milquetoast studio pictures, this week's episode of Last Man on Earth provides a far more exciting answer to the question of what sort of actor Sudeikis is: A really good one.
He exhibits unsettling control and heretofore unprecedented dramatic restraint in "Fourth Finger," a performance that provides Tandy (who will apparently still respond to Tandy, even with Phil Miller six feet under) with his most enjoyable foe yet, and culminates in some gut-punch poignancy. This week's half-hour gets its kicks from the merciless prank war between Mike and Tandy, but the animosity between them runs deeper than typical brotherly competition. Mike declared fatwa on Tandy at the end of last week's episode by shaving the right side — the entire right side — of his body, and Tandy has every intention of getting vengeance through a series of poison-oak-related stunts. None of them stick, of course, but what really infuriates Tandy is how well Mike takes it in stride; he's unflappable, speaking with all the quiet hospitality of a hotel concierge when he looks up from the book he's reading to acknowledge his half-bald brother. Trolls harass other people to get a rise out of them, so the key to destroying them is complete disengagement.
Mike's maddening calm at Tandy's easily foiled tricks segues into the emotional crux of the episode, and Sudeikis brings the same powerful restraint to these scenes, making them some of the series' best. Mike's cucumber-grade coolness turns to menace when he calls Tandy's bluff, which leads to the most chilling possible utterance of the words "Under the suit. Out of the bag. On your balls." But when Mike and Tandy both establish a ceasefire and unite under the most important thing they have in common — their shared status as sudden orphans — that steely exterior cracks, and his inner vulnerability comes pouring out. Mike's lived an unfathomably lonely life up until this point. Of course he'd be afraid to express his sadness; pushing it down was the only way to survive on the space station. And though it took him some time to warm up to Phil again, he can afford to rely on a network of support to process his traumas. Frankly, it strains credibility that he can even maintain eye contact after however many untold years of total isolation, but hey, this is a comedy.
And what a fine comedy it is. "Fourth Finger" has the added benefit of being the funniest episode of the season, in addition to an emotional gut-punch. The show has repeatedly taken pleasure in imposing weird physical transformations on Will Forte, and this episode takes the cake, then helps itself to a few extra slices. His appearance as a half-man is disturbing enough, but adding the deeply unnatural greyish hue to cover the blue dye on his face is a stroke of genius. He looks like a ComicCon attendee cosplaying the Human Being mascot from Community, though the other characters on the show get in much better potshots than that one. A viewer can practically see the Last Man on Earth staffers throwing around one-liners during the scenes when everyone reacts to Tandy's shocking new look. With "It looks like Hitler's mustache is sliding off of your face" and "You look like you're from the future and you're here to warn us about technology," January Jones reaffirms that her wisest move would be a total shift into comic acting, and Cleopatra Coleman's "You look like two different serial killers" is both perfect and accurate.
Todd continues to be saddled with the less-interesting half of the episode, though "Fourth Finger" does fulfill my hope that his attempt at polygamy would be given a fair shake. With less than a dozen people left on Earth, many of society's mores have become obsolete, and in terms of pure numbers, it makes sense for Todd to take multiple partners. The plan works better in theory than practice, however, and not for the expected reason of jealousy. Todd's simply stretching himself too thin, and he's unable to give Melissa, Gail, and Erica's newborn the full attention they each deserve. The episode brings this situation to an unresolved conclusion when Todd delivers his heroic monologue about giving 100 percent to all the women in his life. That may add up to something like 600 percent, he admits, "but I was never good at math." It's a folksy, endearing line that wins the favor of the assembled women, but it doesn't really mean anything. Monologuing won't give Todd more hours in his day, and while this is a novel avenue to explore, the resolution to his plot line this week could've been sounder.
But that's a relatively minor complaint in an episode that hits lofty comedic and emotional highs, lingers at those heights, and then sticks the landing. Last Man on Earth has often been more effective with physical humor and sight gags than quote-unquote "jokes," but "Fourth Finger" proves that the show's writers can deliver quotables with the best of them. Pallid-skinned, half-shaven Tandy may be the most indelibly hilarious sight the show has ever delivered, and Sudeikis has already proven that he's worth his weight in gold. Though more trouble undoubtedly waits beyond the horizon, for the moment, the future is bright.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions:
- Tandy warns his brother, "This here Malibu is Tandy country. You just got put on blast." This raises a curious question about slang and its evolution in a post-everything world. It's safe to assume culture as a whole has stopped advancing with the disappearance of nearly all people. Does this mean the English language is no longer subject to the mutations catalyzed by pop-culture catchphrases, young-people abbreviations, and so on? Will the human race speak like they're living in the latter half of 2014 until the end of time? For the sake of practicality, the show's vernacular will probably change with along with the times of its production. Still strange to consider.
- Kristen Schaal's victory tour of phenomenal line readings continues unabated this week, with "This is like McDreamy versus McSteamy redux!" ("Maybe you'd see that if you just started focusing on your tits!" is a close second.) Her description of that freakish recurring Denzel Washington–childbirth dream is from another planet entirely.
- What's Tandy's deal with poison oak? Why is he so weirdly intent on that being the thing he does to Mike? Perhaps an unspoken childhood incident holds the key.