At this point there’s a pretty simple way of knowing whether an episode of THE LAST MAN ON EARTH is going to be good.
Let’s call it the PhilTandy Ratio.
Phil is the protagonist Phil Miller, the strong but searching man teetering on the brink of loneliness despite surrounding himself eternally with the other last people on Earth. He’s introspective, quiet, hopeful but not overbearing, and most of all, a decent guy looking out for others.
Stories about Phil – like his journey to Seattle with Lewis – can be revealing in the best way.
Then there’s Tandy, our protagonist’s given name because he’s such a pushover. And so he’s everywhere. He’s foolish, annoying, a scene sucker and a sad sack. He lives outside the plot while simultaneously occupying all the spaces of the plot.
Stories about Tandy – like this week’s “Whitney Houston, We Have a Problem” – can be hard to watch.
“Whitney Houston, We Have a Problem” could be all about Gail and Melissa, and in relation, Carol and Todd. And sometimes it is. Sometimes, simply because of this, we get riveting television. A medium shot watches Gail in the dim light of the stalled elevator, her face ripe with despair. Todd and Carol stand atop a dual bucket truck yelling out “Melissa!” and “Mom!,” both trying to find their lost loved one.
And yet down on the ground, flailing away and whining about nothing in particular, is Phil in a dinosaur costume. Or Tandy. The PhilTandy Ratio is about 1:3 Phil to Tandy in this one, and that’s not very fun.
Now, look, a guy in a dinosaur costume can be, and is, funny. Our introduction to the costume, in which Phil stalks around the group’s tech headquarters home, and Phil’s maneuvering in the thing, both come with chuckles. Will Forte does commit to the thing. But he spends half the episode in the costume, and the jokes don’t really land. Moreover, and most importantly, it takes away from what really matters in “Whitney Houston, We Have a Problem.”
What matters is Melissa and Gail are gone, and Todd and Carol are responding appropriately. Both want their loved ones home, and both for relatively the same reason: They’re desperate for loving attention.
Todd – who has been showing this desperation all season – really brings it out with Melissa gone, forcing everyone to focus their attentions on his plight. It’s Mel Rodriguez’s finest episode of the season as his Todd rushes around, losing sleep and lashing out at everyone – including Phil’s dinosaur.
As for Carol, she’s desperate for a comfortable family unit in the face of changing scenarios and complete uncertainty. Her effort to find Gail isn’t so much about finding her as it is about confirming the presence of the mother-daughter relationship she craves. To wit, Carol yells out “Mom!” while searching for Gail, and not “Gail!” In Carol’s mind, Gail the person doesn’t exist. It’s only the mother she needs.
This comes to a head between Todd and Carol in the finest scene of the episode, the one time Phil’s stupidity is welcome as a way to undercut tension. That leads the three to search for Melissa, and finally they get somewhere, discovering Melissa’s car and ending up in front of the very building where Gail is trapped.
But it’s Gail’s plight that really matters. Everyone seems to think she’ll simply show up, reeking of wine and maybe drugged up. Instead she’s stuck in the elevator, slowly taking matters into her own hands but coming up empty. If anything, it shows Mary Steenburgen is the secret weapon of The Last Man on Earth, able to carry a scene on her own (especially when it means ripping off the head of her mannequin lover).
Yet the story of “Whitney Houston, We Have a Problem” is the story of The Last Man on Earth. There’s a lot of potential in the cast, plenty of good stories to explore, and questions of family and loneliness to answer. And, thank goodness, even in bad weeks those things can shine through. But too often the show finds itself tethered to Forte’s Tandy-centric broad bits. And when they don’t land, it really hurts.
Season 3, Episode 8 (S03E08)
Show Titles airs Day 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.
Timothy Malcolm | Contributor