Apparently, March is a good month for TV about people who believe themselves to be the last humans alive after the apocalypse—only to discover they’re incorrect. The Last Man on Earth premiered last Sunday with back-to-back episodes on Fox; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt dropped a complete thirteen-episode season on Netflix four days later. Is this some kind of cultural neurosis we’ve just now uncovered? We’re, what, somehow worried that the Doomsday Preppers bunker we’re building in the backyard might just be a distraction from reality? Or that we (and only we, as individuals) are going to survive the apocalypse we suddenly seem pretty interested in? It feels like a weird coincidence, is all I’m saying.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is terrific. It immediately feels like a classic, the kind of thing that’s going to fold itself seamlessly and completely into the cultural landscape—but then, it’s possible that anything that sounds like Tina Fey automatically sounds like a classic to us now. (Though Kimmy is a thousand times more sure-footed than 30 Rock was in the beginning, or—and I say this with deep affection—possibly ever.) It’s sharp and agile and, at the same time, incredibly solid: dense with spot-on characterization, dense with good jokes, dense with the confidence of knowing exactly what it’s doing.
Kimmy was originally developed for NBC, but ended up on Netflix, which pretty much everybody agrees was the best-case scenario all around. Kimmy is not a network show: it’s very weird and very dark in places, in a way that might not exactly set off the network censors’ sirens, but also might make them feel a bit queasy. It’s also not the kind of thing that might do well on cable: ironically, it’s maybe too sunny, too pro-social, not cynical enough (Kimmy Schmidt is, after all, unbreakable—which is so not what cable is doing these days). But Netflix, which is building a reputation on shows like Orange is the New Black? That’s a good match. And with the freedom from the network system, Kimmy feels like mature work from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock: there’s no ramping-up period, no hunt for what the show is and what it wants to say. It’s immediately funny and immediately clear, and it’s fully formed in a way that week-to-week shows sometimes struggle with.
The Last Man on Earth is also good, and part of its appeal is that it exists at all. The fact that something so strange and abstract could get made, and convince Fox to advertise it, and actually get some ratings, feels improbable and amazing in a world where this year’s Academy Award-winning Best Actress is also—as CBS constantly and gleefully reminds us—the star of the new CSI: Cyber. In that kind of landscape, who wants to go in and pitch a silly, yet expensively shot and production-intensive, sitcom about solitude and the human condition?
Amazingly, Last Man pulls it off, so far. Tonally, it’s like Kimmy Schmidt‘s stoner pal: Kimmy is bright and quick and features Ellie Kemper ruling New York City in light-up hi-tops; Last Man is vast and full of the silence and the color palette of post-apocalyptic Tucson, and some of its jokes a) take awhile and b) involve pick-up trucks full of bowling balls. (A surprising number of the jokes on Last Man revolve around balls of the sports-playing variety, actually. You’ll see.)
What both shows have in common is that they require, and deliver, exceptional performances: Kimmy Schmidt because Kimmy could so easily turn grating; Last Man because, well, there’s nobody else. This is career-making stuff from Ellie Kemper, who commits to Kimmy’s cheerfulness (I never realized before how big her mouth is) but also to a certain steeliness and to the shadow of an incredibly sad past. We’ve seen wide-eyed wonder from her before (Bridesmaids), but this is better: a character rather than a stereotype, and therefore a real opportunity for her as an actor. She’s a tremendously physical performer, and makes it look like she’s not even trying. Forte is in a slightly different position; nobody doubts his talent, but nobody’s had a TV project that grooved with his goofy, slightly poignant sensibility, either—which is, I think we can presume, why he wrote and produced Last Man. It was a good call: capturing the humor of being the last man on Earth, and the total and utter tragedy of the exact same thing, is just the kind of thing a weird, kind of sad guy can pull off. A show that just followed Phil Miller around, Wall-E-style, wouldn’t be the worst thing.
Except. Phil Miller may be the last man on Earth, but it turns out he isn’t the last human on Earth. The last moments of the pilot introduced Kristen Schaal as another survivor; episode three introduced yet another, played by January Jones. I’m just going to say it: this is a LOT of Kristen Schaal. I tend to think she’s funny, but she’s an acquired taste for a lot of people—and as her first live-action leading role, I think this show is going to require more from her than we’ve seen before. I hope she’s able to shed some of the ironic distance she’s built a career on, and invest in the connection that Carol is going to need to be funny and pathetic rather than just plain irritating. That said, the third episode was very good and planted the seeds for some fun sitcom drama in the weeks to come. It’s early yet, but I think greatness—or at least high-quality originality—is at least a possibility there.