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We Need To Talk About The Gender Issues On "The Last Man On Earth"

Will Forte's new post-apocalyptic series imagines a future in which anything goes — except the dissolution of expectations about gender and domesticity.

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In only five short years, the world as we know it will be gone, according to Fox's new comedy The Last Man on Earth. Cities will lie vacant, the normally bustling streets devoid of any human presence, all thanks to a mysterious virus. Everyone and everything will be gone — everyone except for the last man on Earth.

That man is Phil Miller (played by Will Forte, who also created the series and wrote the pilot). The early fortysomething is first introduced as he drives through the entire United States (and Canada and Mexico!) looking for anyone else who, like him, may have inexplicably survived the most catastrophic event in history, leaving signs along the way that he's "Alive in Tucson." Despite his early initiative, Phil quickly resigns to a life of disarray and disappointment when there is no one else to be found, descending into a state of bedlam filled with margarita pools, towers of porn magazines, and humongous piles of trash. It's a far cry from the optimism implied when he first decorates the McMansion he decides to move into with priceless paintings and statues pilfered from museums all around the nation. Phil was going to live like a king, but within five months, he has simply become a slob instead.

Phil becomes strikingly animalistic as he makes his lonely way through the world (The Kinks' "Apeman" plays over the scene of him moving into his new abode), his mind seemingly unable to process anything besides a primal need for sex. He talks (to himself and his "friends," a collection of sports balls a la Wilson in Cast Away) about his rampant masturbation and constant horniness, saying that he would "give anything to see another woman again." Women serve a specific purpose in Phil's eyes (i.e. sex) and anything else they bring along (e.g. basic human companionship) is extraneous.

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Just minutes into the first episode of Last Man on Earth, Phil has essentially regressed to a pre-evolutionary state. He is pigeonholed into a type of masculinity marked by childishness, impulsivity, and laziness. He doesn't care about things like bathing or shaving and has no qualms about his constant drunkenness — the masculine condition is, at its core, basically the life of a disgusting bro.

And since Last Man on Earth is, at its heart, Phil's story, the viewer is meant to identify with his version of masculinity. "The show is about Phil Miller, and whatever else happens in the show, it's about him," said co-executive producer Andy Bobrow in an episode of Vulture's TV Podcast.

That approach essentially downgrades the female characters on the series as mere props for Phil to play off of, like Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal), who saw the signs he left around the country and has traveled to the desert to find the only other person out there. Carol is a highly idiosyncratic individual, with strong grammatical preferences and a belief in the continued importance of stop signs, even with no other cars on the road. And she is the woman who is now entering Phil's life, seemingly giving him everything he could have hoped for.

Except of course not, because Carol is not the type of woman Phil has been waiting for, as indicated by the fact that — when Phil passes out after discovering and sniffing Carol's bra (because he's horny, remember?!?!) — he hallucinates a vision of a conventionally beautiful twentysomething (played by True Detective's Alexandra Daddario) waking him up and almost immediately making out with him. As he comes to, he realizes that what is happening is, instead, Carol performing mouth-to-mouth on him. He screams.

What a horror, Phil clearly thinks, to have this woman — one who is strong-willed rather than submissive, and who doesn't seem to conform to Phil's stereotypical ideals of female beauty — appear to him. Apparently, it's a trauma almost as bad as being alone.

When she arrives to tour Phil's home, Carol tells him that "a person's home is a reflection of their soul," expressing distaste for the rancid mess she finds. Because while Phil is repulsed by her, she is equally turned off by him. The morning after their meeting, she shows up at his house unannounced and begins cleaning the trash he has left lying around. Carol is a woman of traditional domestic taste, both in the literal upkeep of her space and in her adherence to the gendered norms of the pre-apocalyptic world. She wouldn't dare eat with her bare hands as Phil does, she recoils at the idea of using anything but an indoor toilet, and she certainly won't have sex before marriage. Where Phil eschews domestic norms, Carol is almost too strict in her embrace of prescribed social cues; if Phil is a pre-evolutionary man, Carol is an uptight 1950s housewife. She embraces domesticity in excess — think of how many wedding rings she chooses to wear in the aftermath of the wedding ceremony.

The show's third episode began to hint at nuance in the way the characters navigated their different expectations of how to approach domestic life as the final two people on the planet (perhaps Carol can learn to accept Phil's love of steamrolling beer cans!), but the fourth episode essentially exploded that progress. Because, you see, Carol is not the last woman on Earth. There is also Melissa (January Jones), a blonde stunner who literally crashes into Phil and Carol not long after those two have consummated their marriage. Poor Phil — if only he had held off the nagging Carol a bit longer, he could have bagged a real hottie. Because he believes that he deserves to choose between Melissa and Carol, regardless of what their desires may actually be.

Melissa, unlike Carol, is the ultimate Cool Girl. She agrees with Phil in arguing against Carol that his purloined home decorations aren't really stolen, because there's no one left to claim them. She invites Phil over to hang out and drink some cold beers. She makes jokes that Phil actually laughs at (too hard, of course) and says that her ideal mate is a "provider" and real a "man's man." "Duly noted," Phil replies, barely concealing his contempt for Carol in the face of a new female prospect. Melissa isn't afraid to bring up her sexuality, revealing to Phil just how horny she has felt in the year after the virus struck. (Someone else who is horny?, thinks Phil. Jackpot!) She's sexy and playful, while Carol is controlling and regimented. Each woman fulfills her own narrow vision of what femininity might be, and neither is allowed to overlap with the other and thus taint Phil's vision of his ideal woman.

And despite Phil's questionable beliefs about what a woman should or shouldn't be, his own position with regards to masculinity isn't much better. When he attempts to turn himself into a "successful gentleman" by shaving his beard and offering gifts to Melissa, for example, he ends up emasculated, called weak and small, and is compared to lesbian singer k.d. lang. Still, his failure as a domestic man is seen as something to pity, while Carol's failings are seen as a source of annoyance. Even in pigeonholing Phil's masculinity, the show still insinuates that a narrow representation of masculinity is superior to a narrow representation of femininity.

While The Last Man on Earth thus began with the intriguingly unique premise of following a solitary person through the ruins of a past society, it ends up devolving into a frustratingly conventional domestic comedy, foregrounding the love triangle rather than dealing with the darker and more existentially difficult questions that the show's premise brings up. Instead of examining how these three people are going to co-exist in a world so different from the one they remember, the show offers up a slate of stereotypically gendered characters who seem reliant on using traditional domesticity as their frame of reference for how to understand one another.

Even in the apocalypse, it seems, we aren't free of those expectations.

Last Man on Earth airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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