I have watched every episode of The Last Man on Earth, and I could not tell you why Melissa Shart (January Jones) is so, so angry at Phil Miller. This is a problem, but mostly because I can’t know if this is because she’s the most poorly drawn character on the show, or the only one who behaves like a real, complex human being.
The Last Man on Earth stopped being that some time ago. By the end of the first episode our Last Man, Phil Miller (Will Forte), was joined by a Last Woman, Carol Pilbasion (Kristen Schaal). The pair have since been joined by other characters, starting with Extremely Hot Woman (Jones) and Notably Obese Man (Mel Rodriguez). Eventually the show included such diverse survivors as Extremely Hot and Sexual Older Woman (Mary Steenburgen*), Extremely Hot, Black, Australian Woman (Cleopatra Coleman) and finally, Extremely Hot Man Who Also Happens to Be Named Phil Miller What Are the Odds? (Boris Kodjo). The show might now better be called Maybe The Last Group of People on Earth but Let’s Face It, Probably Not.
While the show has, week after week, added characters, it hasn’t added much in the way of character traits. On most sitcoms, you can boil your favorite characters down to some unchanging adjectives: Ron Swanson is libertarian and no-nonsense, Michael Scott is clueless but well-meaning, Liz Lemon is overworked and hungry for sandwiches. This how sitcoms work – if Monica Geller was suddenly messy without warning, we wouldn’t recognize our Friends. But there’s been a trend lately of shows that, beyond one or two main characters, operate on a New Yorker cartoon level of characterization. It works well on shows like Man Seeking Woman or Louie, where you know you will never have to see Josh Greenberg’s literal troll of a blind date again, or the smug 24-year-old store owner who speaks truth to Big Louie and makes him feel old. In these worlds, we’re following one hapless but ultimately likable character through a confusing and terrifying heightened reality where nothing ever goes their way. Sure, those guys make mistakes and treat people badly, but when you’re up against actual Hitler, who can blame you?
The premise of The Last Man on Earth is a classic New Yorker Cartoon. What if there was only one man left on earth? And what if, in his solitude, he became boorish and chaotic and talked to balls (the inflatable sports kind, not his own)? But twist! What if there was a Last Woman on Earth and she was conservative, shrill and nagging?
These archetypes were relatively fun to explore in the beginning. Will Forte is hilarious and deeply likable, enough to make Phil’s desperate situation human but still laughable. And even though the character of Carol Pilbasin is written as some kind of pre-feminist nightmare – she insists on getting married before having sex to save the species and she’s very, very regimented, possibly thanks to her menstrual cycle – I didn’t notice for a few episodes. Because who is more inherently winning than Kristen Schaal? No one on Earth.
But as characters were added, those characters showed us more and more about who Phil really was, separate from his post-apocalyptic loneliness. And it turns out Phil is terrible. He’s selfish and mean, lazy and gross, obsessed getting the sex he wants and incapable of basic human honesty, even when the fate of civilization depends on it. Pretty much everything bad that happens to Phil is because Phil is a fucking dick. His problems include “Carol expects something of me!” and “January Jones likes a fat guy more than me!” and “Everyone hates me because I tried to pull a fast one on what little remains of mankind! And then I tried again! And then I tried again!” So it would seem that Melissa’s anger is justified.
But enter Jones’ Melissa Shart (Melissa – Jones’ Shart?). When Melissa first arrived, it seemed that she and Phil had a few things in common, but it was quickly revealed that she hates cheaters – no matter how brief, forced, or situationally-determined their relationship might be. Now she just exists to prettily despise our main character, week after week. Those are her character adjectives: “Hot” and “Hates Phil.” While other cookie-cutter characters, like Gail and Todd, occasionally show Phil some empathy, Melissa is unmoving. She hates Phil when it makes sense to and keeps hating him when it doesn’t. Is this because she’s a complicated person with anger issues? Enhhh, doubtful. January Jones is a beautiful blank canvas, and when you project the right things onto her – like Betty Draper’s maternal rage or lack of agency – she shines. But when what you project onto her is Hot Lady Who is Mad All the Time, then that’s all you’re getting.
Maybe Melissa’s endless, unthinking hate is supposed to create sympathy for Phil. Personally, I feel an occasional twinge and then quickly remember that Phil tried to embarrass nice, fat Todd by making him take his shirt off, or that he tried to hide what he understood to be one half of humanity from the other forever so that he could skinny-dip with Ted Danson’s wife.
The Last Man on Earth could, counterintuitively, be better as a real ensemble show. They have some great actors (Mel Rodriguez is having quite a year, between this and Better Call Saul), but everyone only exists to react to Phil’s latest god-awful misdeed. Each week, instead of growing as characters, the characters grow in number – more people to hate Phil. It’s exhausting. It makes me glad to be in a pre-apocalyptic world, totally surrounded by jerks, so I don’t have to worry so much about one in particular.
*Who may actually be considering changing her name to Extremely Hot and Sexual Older Woman so suck on that, Jane Seymour.