There’s a similar thread that runs through some of television’s best sitcoms: The main characters are like a family.
Go through the history of the medium. It’s everywhere. Cheers proved even local barflies could operate in a family unit. The Office breathed the idea of workplace as family. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the original workplace-as-family show. Even Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer of Seinfeld – a show whose motto was “no hugging” – were in their own odd way a makeshift family.
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH probably won’t be held to such a regard. It hasn’t reshaped the idea of situational comedy like Seinfeld or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It hasn’t created a new style like Cheers or The Office. Lost in an era of exceptional television, The Last Man on Earth is just another well-shot original concept with good jokes.
But like those classic sitcoms, it has its family. And “The Open-Ended Nature of Unwitnessed Deaths,” a quieter but heartfelt episode of the series, focuses on how our last people on Earth are both exploring and coping with the idea that they are, in fact, a family.
Just two weeks before, in “Five Hoda Kotbs,” Gail decried the idea of the survivors as a family. Lewis, the newest member of the group, didn’t even want to entertain that reality. But it’s those two, the group’s most ornery – or intellectual – members, who come around just a little bit in “The Open-Ended Nature of Unwitnessed Deaths.” And the result is superb.
Both stories hit highly personal notes, making much of the episode a delicate dance of emotions. Luckily we have foils, and this is where the annoying versions of Phil and Carol are welcomed.
First Lewis, who Phil is trying to re-friend after accusing him of booby-trapping the group’s new residence. Phil discovers Lewis had a partner, Mark, who may have died in the virus. It’s likely Mark died, of course, but Phil holds out hope for him. Phil’s childish antics (and Lewis rightly calls them out) come with an almost sickening optimism. Since Lewis didn’t see Mark die, there’s still a small chance he’s out there trying to get home to Seattle.
So Phil tases Lewis in order to kidnap him and take him to Seattle, hoping he’ll leave a note for Mark, in case he were to return. Somehow this doesn’t spark Lewis to you know, severly harm Phil, but such are the circumstances when there are few people remaining in the world. Don’t want to be left alone, you know?
It leads to one of the more poignant moments of the series. Lewis stands alone in his old house weeping at an old photo of him and Mark. With simple piano backing, the scene underscores the depth of the stakes surrounding the series. It’s easy to forget that these characters are carrying heavy burdens, and have been for years.
And it turns out stealing Lewis away is something of a masquerade for Phil, who still believes his brother Mike is out there. So the two travel down to Tucson, where Phil visits his old home and leaves a note for Mike. Again, we get simple piano music as Phil muses over whether to turn a door handle or simply linger a little longer in his old home. When he returns to Lewis, he comes back with his old friend Gary the volleyball.
He doesn’t need Gary, though. Phil wants Lewis as a surrogate brother. He’s not a threat to Phil’s manhood (Lewis is gay) and is the one guy who challenges him. Lewis is a welcome new family member for Phil, and their bonding over “Sweet Caroline” shows there’s an actual connection between them. It’s a pretty way to bring these two characters closer together.
Carol and Gail have a similar dance, but instead of siblinghood, this one’s about motherhood. Carol begs Gail to become her unborn child’s grandmother (and thus Carol’s mother), and Gail flat refuses. This leads Carol to present drawings of sexy grandmothers (Goldie Hawn, Beyonce’s mom, Caitlyn Jenner [someone who actually doesn’t seem to fit the Last Man timeline]), but Gail still says no. After enough hand wringing from Carol, Gail finally lets the cat out of the bag – she had a son who died (before the virus), and she doesn’t want to be someone else’s mother.
It allows us a nice bit of acting by Mary Steenburgen, who has been underused this season. And Kristen Schaal shows wonderful restraint handling the delicacy of Gail’s truth. In the end, Carol admits she loves Gail, and soon, documents are signed making Gail Carol’s adopted mother.
It’s not really necessary that Gail become Carol’s mother. It doesn’t move the greater narrative in any way. But it puts Carol’s struggle in greater focus – that she’s intensely reliant on having structure and is having trouble coping with not having someone looking out for her best interests. In turn it adds another dimension to Gail: her difficulty coping with loss (hell, she still keeps Gordon around).
All of this works exceptionally. The Last Man on Earth can drag us in with crazy killers and hairbrained schemes, but the show is at its strongest when it’s reminding us of the enormous weight breaking our survivors’ backs. And it helps when paired with thoughtful set design; instead of charred out cities and spacious nothingness, the most searing moments of “The Open-Ended Nature of Unwitnessed Deaths” occur in the deep solitude of eerily empty hallways, living rooms and bedrooms.
And then there’s the hole in the wall. We need more Melissa this season – January Jones is still the MVP of this current run. And this week we get another example: Trying to woo Todd into making a baby, Melissa attempts to do foreplay set to The Shawshank Redemption. She plays Andy. It’s weird. Really weird. Todd wants no part of it, but it doesn’t seem to matter, as Melissa simply retreats into a hole in the wall. Where it goes, only Melissa knows.
That one scene provides ample levity for an episode blanketed in emotion. And this week it’s enough since the emotion is so necessary. The Last Man on Earth is now hitting a stride in season three, balancing zaniness with some beautiful ruminations on loss, and just what family is supposed to mean to a bunch of outcasts.
Maybe it’s a lot like Cheers after all.
Season 3, Episode 6 (S03E06)
The Last Man on Earth airs Sundays at 930PM on Fox
Timothy, who grew up on The Golden Girls and Seinfeld, writes regularly about entertainment, arts and lifestyles for a number of publications.
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Timothy Malcolm | Contributor