Friday, March 13, 2015

The Last Man on Earth Meets Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Will Forte is The Last Man on Earth, on Fox.

Everyone's still dead.  Oh, thank God!” – Phil Miller, The Last Man on Earth.
"Oh, I'm very normal. I've had everything normal happen to me. " – Kimmy Schmidt, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
March 2015 has already proven to be the season of the high-concept comedy. Within a few days of one another, television audiences were given two ambitious new comedy series: Fox's The Last Man on Earth and Neflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. True to its distribution model, the entire 13-episode first season of Kimmy Schmidt dropped all at once last Friday, and the Fox comedy will air its fourth episode this Sunday night. On paper, neither premise seems like a recipe for high comedy: The Last Man on Earth follows its titular last man (Will Forte, Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock), the apparently sole survivor of a worldwide plague that has wipe out humanity, while the title character of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a 29-year-old woman (Ellie Kemper, The Office) who moves to New York City after spending the last 15 years living in an underground bunker, kidnapped by cult leader who told her that the world outside has been destroyed. The shows come with impressive, and even parallel, pedigrees – Tina Fey (also SNL and 30 Rock) and 30 Rock writer and showrunner Robert Carlock created Kimmy Schmidt, and along with Forte, the screenwriting and directing partnership of  Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 and 22 Jump Street, The Lego Movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) have brought us Last Man. Once the ambitious conceits are introduced, both comedies are revealed as more familiar genres: The Last Man is fundamentally a romantic comedy (albeit a rom-com ad absurdum), and Kimmy Schmidt is basically a small-town-girl-comes-to-the-big-city story under its hood.  In both cases, that is to their credit; but, side-by-side, it is impossible to deny that the Netflix series is the far stronger, and funnier, of the two.

First, The Last Man on Earth: We meet Phil (Forte) one year after the virus, as he drives across the country in search of any other survivors. After visiting one empty city after another, Phil resigns himself to his isolation and settles into an abandoned mansion in Tucson. Will Forte's Phil Miller's Everyman status is revealed right there in his name – a self-aware combination of the names of show's two executive producers. And Forte is up to the task: Phil is immediately likeable and familiar as a guy who suddenly discovers that the entire planet is his own personal man cave. As he decorates his new home with objects he's collected on his journey (a few Rembrandts, Monets, a couple of Oscar statuettes, and a rather ostentatious T-Rex skull), you can't but find yourself thinking you'd be doing much the same thing if you suddenly found yourself alone on the planet: talking to God, growing your hair out while wearing a pair of Hugh Hefner's silk pajamas, and pouring liberally from a $10,000 bottle of wine. The early episodes are refreshingly free of the flashback structure televisual storytelling has grown rather too dependent on in our post-Lost era. (The show is so far also, thankfully, entirely corpse free. I wouldn't mind an explanation at some point in the series, but I'm happy to take it as a given if it means we never have to watch Phil navigate rotting skeletons as he collects his porn videos and cans of Spaghettios from the local supermarket.) The Last Man is dark and it's funny, but you can't help wondering aloud (as I did) throughout the first episode, "How is this a series?"

And about 15 minutes into the series, it's as if Phil gets it too – because that's when he decides to kill himself. And then, just as quickly, the show shift gears entirely – introducing, to Phil's and our collective surprise, the first of the many twists the show no doubt promises: in the form of Carol Andrew Pilbasian, the last woman on Earth, played by the incomparable Kristen Schaal (Bob's Burgers, The Daily Show).

Will Forte and Kristen Schaal in The Last Man on Earth.
And this is also where The Last Man begins to stumble. To be fair, the series has given itself a tough comedic hill to climb with its initial cast of one, more so than with the darkness of its premise. Moreover, in three episodes, they've already bravely re-invented the series three times. TV comedies – especially of the "situation" variety – are traditionally loathe to undermine their own basic premises and in this, The Last Man is venturing into something genuinely new for a broadcast comedy. (For that alone, the show is worthy of praise.) The first episode is framed by a broad existential conceit, and we willingly go along with Phil, sympathizing and smiling along with his reactions to his bizarre circumstance. Drive your car through store windows? Bowl in mall parking lots with expensive cars? Pass out drunk in a kiddie pool filled with margaritas? We willingly go where Phil takes us – but all that changes once Carol is introduced. With Kristen Schaal's character we now we have another response to the same circumstances, and the series struggles to keep Phil as the de facto entry point into this world. Schaal does amazingly well with the limited material (she's a brave comic actor, and here she jumps in with both feet), but in the end it's not her story. And Carol – alas for Kristen – is not really another person experiencing that world, but yet another feature of Phil's. As the premise of the second episode moves from "What if I were the last man on Earth?" to "What if she were the last woman on Earth?" Carol is merely something else for Phil to negotiate, and only rarely someone with whom who we are to sympathize. We're supposed to believe, along with Phil, that Carol is objectively frustrating, annoying, and essentially unattractive. In short, that she is a problem. And now Phil's responses become more idiosyncratic, and immediately less justifiable. (I can't be the only one who watched the third episode yelling at the screen: "Just go get the damn rings!")

The introduction of another survivor could have taken the series to an interesting place, as we now watch two very different people clash in their basic responses to an entirely traumatic set of circumstances. But once Carol walks on screen, the show becomes a relationship story, and disappointingly, one where only one of the characters' perspectives are taken into account. Its light approach to the same questions – Why do we follow rules? What does those rules mean? Why are they authoritative? – that every post-apocalyptic series (the good, and the bad) asks is indeed refreshing. But the ones the show raises explicitly for us (What do stop signs mean? What does marriage mean?) within the quickly established Phil/Carol dynamic are given clear answers: Phil is right and Carol is crazy. AOL's Maureen Ryan has called out the series for its essential, if perhaps benign, sexism and her points are hard to dispute. I'm not yet sure it casts a pall over the entire series though, and certainly there's room for more surprises. Still, I can already feel my initial enthusiasm for the series waning. 

The most promising feature of the series so far is that the third episode ends with a car collision that would have been averted had Phil heeded Carol's seemingly ridiculous request to continue to stop at stop signs. Perhaps the show will be willing to let the narrative centre of the story shift along with its continual re-invention of the story's parametres? Perhaps. But I'm not entirely hopeful. 

Ellie Kemper in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, on Netflix.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, on the other hand, is a masterful example of how to turn in a distractingly ambitious premise into a watchable and endearing series. The show is colourful and fun, from its insidiously catchy auto-tuned theme song to the middle-school colour scheme of Kimmy's outfits. We meet her in the final minutes of her 15-year ordeal, still in a dank bunker with her three other female companions. Helped outside by her rescuers, her deepest character reveals itself immediately. Without apparent anger or resentment at being lied to for half her life, her reaction is pure joy as she looks around, seeing the blue sky overhead: "It's here. It's all still here."

For all her Pollyanna appearance, Kimmy is a survivor through and through: her imprisonment didn't break her, and neither will New York City. Though she faces adversity and ill fortune with unerring pluck and a toothy, wide-eyed smile, her back story is so grim and overwhelmingly harrowing that it constantly pushes back against her outward perkiness. With her "almost" eighth-grade education and limited real world experience, she decides to move to New York City, and ends up sharing a basement apartment with Titus (Tituss Burgess), another person who came to New York years earlier to escape his past and pursue his own dreams of making it big on Broadway. ("Escaping is not the same as making it," he tells her.) 

Despite the absurdist edge of the series, Ellie Kemper's Kimmy has the weight of reality to her. Underneath the brightness of  her perennial smile there's a shadow that never quite fades. (Challenged to give up on New York and return to her Midwestern town, her response is bold and simple: "The worst thing that has ever happened to me happened in my own front yard.") Kimmy's pluck isn't so much inherent as it is learned, and her personality is basically a jerry-rigged assemblage of survival strategies. True to its 30 Rock lineage, Kimmy Schmidt has a recurring absurdist edge (the cult Kimmy belonged to was called Savior Rick’s Spooky Church of the Scary-pocalypse), but it holds onto the dark humanity as its core, even at its most ridiculous.

Tituss Burgess, Jane Krakowski and Ellie Kemper
The series introduces her to a variety of characters, in addition to Titus, including Jacqueline (30 Rock's Jane Krakowski), an aging socialite with a straying husband, who hires Kimmy to attend to her two bratty kids, and Kimmy's brash, but big-hearted landlady Lillian (played by Broadway's iconic Carol Kane). There are few false notes in the first season, which follows Kimmy through the ups-and-downs of her Manhattan life, as she figures out what really surviving that bunker really means for her, both practically and emotionally. While Kimmy Schmidt plays no less with established character tropes than The Last Man on Earth – the spoiled rich Manhattan teen, the gay best friend, the aging trophy wife – through the eyes of the naive, small town (and quite literally sheltered) Kimmy, it also allows the audience to see them through new eyes.

But what really makes the series work is that Kimmy Schmidt  is a genuinely interesting character – a unique combination of inexperience and having seen too much, a woman of stalled adolescence (there's a lot of 13 Going on 30 here: she's never drank alcohol, or kissed a boy, or graduated middle school – "Does this backpack look babyish?" she asks, to which Titus responds flatly, "Well, it's a backpack.") and with flashes of deep insight and maturity that each has their origin in the traumatic experience she's endured. Kimmy is certainly socially delayed, but she also has a well developed sense of the compassion that comes from her almost maternal role among the other so-called "Indiana Mole Women" in their time underground. While the bleakness of The Last Man is largely spent after the first 20 minutes or so – essentially left behind in the Arizona desert as the show shifts to become a broad, but rather limited, comic allegory on the experience of marriage – the most often unvoiced darkness of the premise of Kimmy Schmidt never completely disappears. It haunts the deepest core of her character, and carries the story to so many unexpected places.

The Last Man on Earth, while ambitious and often surprising, cannot but pale in comparison to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which in addition to its original premise genuinely feels refreshing and new. Watch both of the new shows – it is exciting to see a renewed boldness in TV comedy – but I know which one you'll be recommending to your friends.

The Last Man on Earth airs on Sundays on Fox. The entire first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is available for streaming on Netflix. (It has already been renewed for a second season.)

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. 

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