Will Forte’s critically praised (and surprisingly successful) Fox comedy The Last Man on Earth ends its first season Sunday. While the former Saturday Night Live cast member created the series and serves as showrunner, superstar feature directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, 22 Jump Street) have been involved with the project since its inception, serving as Forte’s chief creative partners and executive producers. And despite their busy film careers — they’re working on two Lego sequels and an adaptation of The Greatest American Hero — they’re deeply involved in the production of the show, even taking the time each Sunday to livetweet episodes as they air. Vulture caught up with Lord and Miller earlier this week to talk about season one, this week’s finale, and what’s ahead. Here are the eight things we learned from our half-hour discussion.
Even they’re a little bit shocked at how well the show has done in the ratings.
From the minute Fox gave Last Man a straight-to-series order, many TV-industry insiders were skeptical of its odds of success, believing its out-there premise was better suited to a cable network or Netflix. Critics who raved about the first three episodes sent out for review also worried it would prove too weird to attract a big audience. Instead, Last Man has proven to be a solid ratings success, particularly when counting delayed viewing via DVR and online platforms. “We were incredibly surprised,” Lord admits, adding that viewers seem to want the show to lean into its more eccentric impulses even more. “People were really onboard for something that felt fresh and new,” he says. “Every time we made a move to the center and did those traditional sitcom moves, the audience kept telling us, ‘No, we want it to be crazier!’ … We hope the success means we can do more of what’s great about the show, rather than less.”
Miller, meanwhile, believes the days of networks thriving by offering the least objectionable programming imaginable are over. “Because there are so many places to see television, and because the catalogue of every great TV show that’s been made in the history of time is now [online], if you don’t make something that stands out, then you’re not going to gain an audience,” he says. “That’s why we’re seeing so many great television shows on the air right now.”
They understand why not everyone likes Phil being a jerk.
Forte’s Phil was an extraordinarily empathetic character during the opening episodes of the show, particularly when it seemed he really was the only person left on the planet. But Last Man quickly revealed Phil to be a lot more complicated and, yes, a bit less lovable. He lied constantly, treated Carol (and everyone else) poorly, and at one point even considered killing off one of his fellow survivors. Some critics who had previously praised the show walked back some of their love. Lord and Miller, while defending the path Forte and the show’s writers took, say they understand the reaction — particularly since change for Phil has come glacially during season one. “Because of that slow burn, and of wanting to get into that granular detail of watching him become a better person, there are parts where it’s definitely difficult to watch because you’re just saying, ‘God! Come on! Get it together!’” Lord admits.
Miller also thinks the fact that Fox opted to air several episodes of the show back-to-back over an hour rather than a half-hour each week may have made it a bit tougher to stomach Phil’s one-step-forward, two-steps-back journey to self-improvement. “That really highlighted [viewers’ sense that] his character had made some progress, and then it would feel like he would regress in the next episode,” Miller says of the hour-long episodes. But Miller also thinks “it was pretty brave” of Forte to make the lead of a sitcom such a frustrating figure. “It’s sort of his style of humor — to want himself to be the butt of the joke,” he says. “Will doesn’t want to come off looking like he thinks he’s a cool guy, or a great guy. He’ll often make himself the villain of the show. And it’s a tricky thing to do with a main character. You have antiheroes in dramas, like Tony Soprano. But it’s a little bit harder in comedy. You don’t see it quite as much.” The fact that Phil’s jerk side doesn’t really pay off for him is also a bit unusual, Lord argues. “I think people are onboard for watching a well-meaning person fail at something they ought to do,” he says. “And they’re onboard for watching a not-well-intentioned person succeed, like with Nightcrawler or Boardwalk Empire. This is a show where a person of questionable intentions is failing all the time. It sort of challenges you a little bit.”
… but they believe he has turned a corner.
Episode 10 (“Pranks for Nothin’”), in which Phil and Carol finally admit the sham of their marriage and “divorce,” was something of a turning point for the series, since Phil finally realized, as Miller notes, “every time he’s being honest, good things happen to him, and every time he starts scheming, bad things happen to him.” And while the last two episodes have once again seen Phil backslide and invoke the wrath of the other survivors, “He is a slightly different person since his truth epiphany,” Miller says. “He tells the truth about what his middle name is, when he could have easily lied. He does own up to the fact that he tried to murder Todd, when he could’ve lied. He does lie a little bit. But they’re not as egregious lies as they were before.” Miller hints the finale will offer more proof of this evolution. Being a jerk “is only one aspect to the character of Phil Miller,” he says. “You’re going to see a lot of new stuff from him … What we’ve learned from this season is you want him to feel like he’s evolved.”
It’s not clear if we’ll ever see the old world.
Save for a brief glimpse of Phil’s old life at the start of the show, Last Man hasn’t delved into what life was like for him or the other survivors pre- apocalypse. That doesn’t mean the producers haven’t thought about what that existence looked like. In fact, it turns out there’s actually filmed footage of Phil’s past life sitting in digital locker somewhere. “We shot a bunch of [flashbacks] for the pilot and ending up not using them,” Lord says. “We shot them because we had anxiety about, well, are we going to be sitting in editing and really wish we had other human beings [in the pilot]? But the best edit of the show was without any of that.” As of now, there are no firm plans to use those scenes or shoot new ones. “I don’t feel a big impulse to do it,” Lord says. “Though I wouldn’t rule it out. Because anything that would change the game or would have additive value, we’d be excited about. But I don’t think it’s going to become like Lost: The Comedy.”
Fox initially wasn’t happy about the decision to reveal so little about the show before it launched.
One of the most amazing things about the first season of Last Man was how, in this era of spoilers, the show’s many plot twists remained largely secret until they were revealed. Had Fox’s marketing team had their way, however, not all of the twists would’ve been kept quiet — particularly the key fact that Forte isn’t really the last man on Last Man. “There was a lot of arguing from network, because from a marketing standpoint, you want to be able to advertise you have these amazing actors on your show.” Miller says. “You want to tell the audience, ‘Oh, if you’re worried this is just a show about a guy smashing stuff for 13 episodes, it’s not. There are really relationships and character development.’ That was very frustrating for them, and I understand why.” Forte, Lord, and Miller were adamant, however, about keeping these details under wraps. “Part of the show from the beginning was: Let’s shock people and have fun twists, and make it feel like you can’t wait to see what the next one is going to be,” Miller explains. “And to their credit, the network, who promised us we could make the show as crazy as we felt it needed to be, let us make the show we thought it had to be — and then really stood by marketing it without using all the bullets in their arsenal.”
They really loved the episode where Phil and Carol got divorced.
Asked to name some their favorite moments or episodes from season one, Lord and Miller both cite “Pranks for Nothin’,” written by Emily Spivey. The Phil and Carol “kiss that they have right after they get divorced [is], for me, the epitome of what the show does best,” Lord says. “It’s a very simple thing, with a lot of layers of meaning underneath it. It’s really human and honest. It’s the dream of what we hoped the show could do.” Miller, meanwhile, is also a fan of “the third episode that Jason Wollner directed [“Raisinballs and Wedding Bells”]. It has a lot of the visual whimsy that I think was a big part of the early part of the show, like when he’s in that steamroller rolling over the beer cans. It also has a lot of real heart between Phil and Carol, some fun twists and a lot of funny jokes.”
The show could return earlier, and last longer, next season.
Fox won’t unveil its new fall schedule until May 11, so it’s too soon to officially say when Last Man will be back for season two. But Lord and Miller said they’ve been told a fall premiere is very much a possibility, and they’re ready if that’s the case. “The plan is to schedule it in the fall, but you never know,” Lord says. “There’s no physical limitation against us being ready for the fall.” And while the network has only committed to 13 episodes for season two — standard for shows that debut mid-season — it’s possible that that number could increase, too. “We’ve been talking about doing a few more, for storytelling’s sake,” Miller says. “But I don’t think we’d ever do a full season [of 22 episodes].”
You’ll want to stay tuned until the very end Sunday night.
No surprise, Lord and Miller aren’t talking about what happens in Sunday’s finale. But they do say it’s a pivotal episode for the show’s future — specifically the final scene. “The last shot is a reminder to us of the ambition of the show, the possibility of the show, and the willingness to open it up to big, crazy, disruptive innovation,” Lord says. “We’re just hoping that last shot leads to more crazy possibilities.” And just what might some of those innovations be? Once again, no specifics, save one: “I don’t think it’s going to be 100 episodes of people in a cul-de-sac arguing about the garbage,” Miller says.