Beginning on March 1, 2015, the Fox network began broadcasting episodes of “The Last Man on Earth,” a quirky comedy conceived by and starring Will Forte that initially focused on Forte’s character, Phil “Tandy” Miller, the apparent last survivor of a global apocalypse. The series followed the adventures of Phil and the other survivors that he began encountering (despite the name of the program), and ran for four seasons before being canceled by Fox in May of 2018.
The announcement of the show’s cancellation dismayed hardcore fans of the series, although it did not come as a surprise to Hollywood insiders. While the series began its run with a strong viewership (averaging 6.07 million viewers during the first season), the show struggled to build an audience and by the third season, was averaging just 3.29 million viewers per episode. By the fourth season, viewership had dropped to 1.97 million viewers, and the show was at the very bottom of the network viewership rankings.
Although they were not numerous, the show did have some die-hard fans, and won considerable critical acclaim. In 2015, the show won a Critic’s Choice Television Award for best actor in a comedic series, four primetime Emmys for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series, outstanding writing, outstanding directing, and outstanding single-camera editing, two EWwy awards for outstanding comedy series and outstanding lead actress in a comedy series, and two Writer’s Guild of America awards for new series and episodic comedy. The awards pace slackened a bit in the second season, and in 2016 the show won two Critic’s Choice Television Awards for best comedy series and best actor in a comedy series, as well as an another primetime Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series.
Smartly written and brilliantly acted by a high-powered cast, the running jokes, call-backs to previous episodes, and extremely original plotlines all contributed to an almost cult following among TV viewers. Although by the end of the show’s run there were only 2 million of them, they were strongly committed to the show, and some continue to hold out hope of a future rebirth for the program.
Story and the Point of No Return
The story begins after the end of the world. Though the initial episodes are somewhat vague about what has happened (we later find out that a virus has killed nearly everyone on the planet), we know that Phil “Tandy” Miller (Forte) is traveling around a desolate and apparently empty United States, searching for other survivors of the global apocalypse. In a surprisingly well-conceived plan, Phil leaves huge signs all over the country reading “Alive in Tucson” (his home town) before returning there to await the arrival of others. Unfortunately the others do not come at first, and Phil grows more and more unstable and self-indulgent. He moves into a mansion and uses an adjacent mansion’s swimming pool as an open-air toilet, appropriates works of art from local museums to hang around his ramshackle palace, and in general indulges in the kinds of pointless hedonism that a person completely on their own has nothing better than to do.
As Phil’s ability to entertain himself begins to fail, he becomes depressed and falls into despair. He decides to commit suicide, but just as he is about to do so, he spots a column of smoke in the distance, and discovers that another survivor (Carol Pilbasian, played by Kristen Schaal) has seen one of his signs and traveled to Tucson to find him. Despite being completely incompatible, the pair decide to repopulate the Earth, though the moralistic Carol insists that Phil marry her so that their children will be “legitimate”.
Over the course of the next three seasons, the cast steadily expands (and the title of the show becomes increasingly inaccurate) as the group finds more and more survivors and moves around the country for various plot-driven reasons. They marry and divorce, have children, and suffer losses and setbacks. In season 4’s finale, which unintentionally also became the series finale after the sudden cancellation of the program, the group encounters another group of apparently hostile survivors on a beach in Mexico.
Although ratings were low, it seems unlikely that the creators of the show intended for it to end like that. In fact, Will Forte indicated that he had a fairly dark resolution to the series in mind. In a podcast interview in July of 2018, Forte revealed that the mysterious second group of survivors were actually people who had learned in advance of the deadly virus that wiped out humanity and who hid underground waiting for the infection to pass. Realizing that the virus would eventually go dormant, the underground group waited until their calculations indicated it was safe to come out, and then promptly encountered the primary cast. Mutually suspicious at first, over time the two groups would become friends and intermingle. Unfortunately, the original survivor group was immune to the virus and thus had survived in the first place, but were still carrying it, and all the new people would quickly become infected and die. This was the plan for the 5th season arc, at least according to Forte.
Unfortunately, Fox did not give Forte the chance to realize this dark series ending, cancelling the show just days after the cliffhanger ending of season 4. Networks have a quick trigger finger when it comes to cancellations these days; there are plenty of fresh ideas available in the world and a show which isn’t gaining an audience after its initial run is unlikely to continue being funded. From that perspective, it is surprising that “Last Man on Earth” lasted as long as it did.
How Does Netflix Fit In?
However, the end of a show on one network no longer has to mean the end of the show overall. Over the past few years, there have been plenty of TV shows that were saved by streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon. “Longmire” and “The Killing” both had very dedicated fan bases and both were saved by Netflix after they were canceled by their original networks. Even Yahoo! Screen got in on the action when it saved Dan Harmon’s “Community” by offering a 13-episode deal for a final season that would give the characters and the story closure.
So can ”The Last Man on Earth” receive the same streaming service treatment? Netflix is the Moby Dick of streaming services, so it would make sense for the company to pick up the show given that they have plenty of resources to handle the production costs. However, Netflix has no shortage of its own shows with big budgets and a whole bunch of movies in production already. What’s more, there are some rumors that the show’s production costs were not as low as proponents of a Netflix pickup believe them to be.
In 2018 it was announced that Hulu was in negotiations to pick up “The Last Man on Earth”, albeit only for a short final season. Alas, this rumor proved unfounded and the show remains an orphan. It is worth noting that not all shows picked up by streaming services went on to have a successful continuation. For example, Yahoo’s attempt at reviving “Community” was received with plenty of criticism due to major cast and script changes.
At this juncture it seems improbable that Netflix will be ordering the fifth season of “The Last Man on Earth.” If it is any consolation to the die-hard fans who have been hoping so hard for such a resurrection, it should be remembered that the track record of other ‘saved’ TV shows is not uniformly positive. A reborn “The Last Man on Earth” would undoubtedly have seen cast and storyline changes, and this is a show that was hugely invested in story and character. The end of the show after season 4, however unsatisfactory, may be the best outcome that could have been hoped for.
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