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Lessons learned from The Last Man on Earth

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Will Forte in The Last Man on Earth. (Fox photo)

The first lines ever spoken in The Last Man on Earth, the post-apocalyptic TV dramedy series that sometimes felt like the world’s longest awkward inside joke, are a prayer. They are said by leading man Phil Miller (played by Will Forte), who’s lived for years in slovenly isolation on a barren Earth, after just about everyone else was killed by a mysterious plague.

“Hello, God,” he says, while lying in the bed of his childhood home in Tucson, Ariz. “First of all, apologies for all the recent masturbation.” He pauses. “But, I gotta say, that’s kinda on you.”

That sets the tone for what would become one of the most surreal sitcoms that has ever aired. The show was cancelled this May after four seasons, breaking the hearts of its dwindling fan base – around 1.5 million viewers by its finale, which was down from its early peak of nearly six million – leaving them without any bargaining power. Unlike more popular cancelled shows (Community, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), The Last Man on Earth wasn’t great television. It was weird television.

Many of its gags were cringe-worthy. Its characters swung from obnoxious slapstick to brilliant prop comedy to poignant monologue in 22 minutes, while the directors peppered in short-lived celebrity cameos and beautifully desolate panoramas of the American west. But behind its baffling veneer, the show concealed an unwavering spiritual core.

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Don’t get me wrong, this was by no means a religious show. Nor was it Jewish – none of its creators or main actors were members of the tribe. But it nonetheless touched on distinctly Jewish themes – namely, that a community bound by faith and will is a profound necessity in life.

After spending the show’s entire pilot episode alone in a twisted, hedonistic purgatory – flippantly robbing museums, lounging in kiddie pools full of margarita mix – Miller yells at God, “I don’t need people! I can make it work on my own.” It’s a sentiment he repeats at the first season’s end, after finding a small group of survivors who get so weirded out by his antics that one guy abandons him in the middle of the desert. “I don’t need any of you,” Miller screams as the car drives away.

Yet he falters by himself. Miller was a horrible human being when he was alone and, initially, he’s equally horrible when surrounded by people. It takes time for him to figure out how to be a moral person. But watching his progress is the most rewarding part of the series. It’s reminiscent of other great contemporary Jewish television: take Rebecca Bunch, who transforms from the titular character of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend into a responsible adult, or Josh Greenberg, whose emotional maturity held together the short-lived and equally absurd show Man Seeking Woman.

The Last Man on Earth only works because Miller incrementally evolves into a valued member of his community and comes to realize that the only way to survive is by sticking together and believing in a collective future. Without other people, he would have died ages ago.

Over the show’s run, the characters take turns in similarly isolating, and potentially lethal, situations: one gets trapped in an elevator while on a wine bender, another runs out of medication and is locked up in solitary confinement. At the end of every story, every episode, every season – indeed, the show itself – the lesson is clear: loneliness is a fate worse than death.

The series finale (spoilers ahead!), which ends on the show’s biggest cliffhanger, is reminiscent of the Jewish version of the apocalypse. Just as the dead tzadikim will be resurrected upon the Messiah’s return, in the final moments of Last Man, the group stumbles upon hundreds of survivors wearing gas masks that glint in the sun, staring them down like zombies. The main characters are gobsmacked. But there’s optimism, too: at least they’re not alone.