It’s highly likely that Tandy Miller has died and gone to hell. All the signs are there:
- He’s in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where all of humanity has disappeared
- He only wants one thing
- No matter what he does, he can’t get that one thing
- (And he’s usually the one preventing himself from getting it)
More than the story of a the last remaining group of people on the planet, The Last Man on Earth is the story of a thirsty man standing in a lake of margaritas that recedes whenever he puts his cup to the surface. It’s also the most awkward show currently on television (and it would give the original The Office a run for its pence if it were still on air), earning its comedy through excruciating situations where Tandy gets tantalizingly close to achieving what should be a relatively simply goal before the rug is pulled from under his feet, he’s beaten with the rug and left sunburned and starving on it.
Since its inception, Tandy has been driven mad by years of loneliness. In that stupid, he resigns himself to marriage with someone with a gratingly opposing personality (only to discover a gorgeous woman still alive that same day), ruins his own chances for sex with that beautiful woman, sincerely earns ostracization from the only group of humans presumably within thousands of miles, and in the last episode (“Moved to Tampa”), lost his identity to a perfect 10 of a male specimen.
The latest insult comes courtesy of the show’s ever sharpening claws of irony. The “Alive in Tucson” billboard scrawling that Miller left behind has gone from homing beacon to lifeline to coitus interrupter to outright nuisance. Since the messages ruined his chances for sex earlier, Tandy sets out to sabotage them, and it results in ruining his current chances for sex. Tandy cannot win. He will never win. He’s the coyote launching himself on a flawed rocket toward the road runner. And we have to accept that.
Critics of the show have shrugged at how inert it seems, and that’s not unearned. Every episode deals with Tandy’s desperation and his failed schemes to get what he wants, and while that’s become cringingly tedious, it’s also brilliant because it shines a spotlight on how little goodwill we’re willing to give a man who’s survived a nightmare. Will Forte (the star and show’s creator) has played Tandy like a leashless Dan Harmon since the pilot: creative, craven, bearded, happy to drink in the human booze soup through a straw. It’s played for laughs as we watch like Gods up above, but the agony is never wholly absent either.
The show answers a question no one asked – what happens when the last man alive is an asshole? – but we can’t even know that Tandy Miller was a genuinely bad guy before faced with the impossible. Grating loneliness has eaten away his psyche, and a harsh social reality has forced him into a corner. Everyone else seems fairly well-adjusted by comparison, but Tandy has lost it, and it’s unlikely that he’ll ever be able to gain (or regain) the common sense that gripping something too tightly is the surest way to lose it.
In “She Drives Me Crazy,” January Jones’ Melissa tells him that he’ll get farther if he’s just himself. If he acts normal and stops being a dick. He manages for a moment, but it’s clear that he can’t maintain it. Being himself means being vulnerable, and he’s been guarding himself for too long, reaching all the way to the edge of suicide. The coyote can’t simply call up the road runner and invite him to dinner.
His particular brand of Omega Manning also raises another important point about how we’re supposed to view Tandy’s personal hell. The Last Man on Earth is that rare show that deliberately tricks its audience into caring about its main character. People talk with reverence about Walter White and Don Draper, but there were opposing reasons for loving them (one had our sympathy, the other our awe). For Tandy, we watched him do all the amazing things we would do if left alone on the planet. We would hang Monets in our giant house, throw bowling balls at fish tanks and ignore now-useless stop signs. Toss paint buckets into a wood chipper? Yes, please. Aim a flame thrower at a bunch of wigs? Hell yes.
Tandy is cool, but without anyone else around, we have no context for what he’s really like. We get his raw humanity without finding out anything important about him. For that, we need people. The first we meet is Carol, and she (played by Kristen Schaal at her best) is just the worst.
She’s also the driving factor in forcing things back to normal. Tandy is content to lie around in his own filth until a woman shows up (so basically an average man), and now that we have a larger crew of people, we’re getting more angles on Tandy’s angst and self-foiled goals.
The show is also liberal with the thumbscrews. It’s not enough that Tandy spends a full day and night stranded on top of a billboard when he was supposed to be having sex twice in one afternoon with Mary Steenburgen and Cleopatra Coleman’s characters. It’s not enough that he stupidly strips down to his underwear in the unrelenting sun. It’s not enough that he’s rescued by the masculine perfection embodied by Boris Kodjoe, who brings his teutonic Love and Basketball swagger to the cul-de-sac. It’s not enough that Kodjoe’s character is also named Phil Miller (what are the odds?), so the Phil we know has to go by Tandy. It’s not enough that his rescue reveals Tandy’s attempt to lie to the outside world about the group’s existence (again).
All of that isn’t enough, so New Phil has to point out that there was another ladder on the billboard the whole time.
That is what the show is all about. It’s abjectly brutal to a main character who we thought was The Dude, but who turned out to be an even hornier Steve Urkel. In that sense the criticisms of the show make sense, but The Last Man on Earth also feels like it’s weeding out the audience who can’t handle its laser focus on Tandy’s misery. The show politely says, “You thought the last episode was awkward? It’s about to get even more awkwarder.”
It’s the combination of that and the blank slate of possibilities that make me think the LOST-esque reality of the show could easily turn out to be that Tandy is in hell. He succeeded in killing himself in the pilot episode and has believed since then that he’s alive despite being tormented by insanely ironic and comedic situations ever since while no one else recognizes his despair in any way.
It seems equally likely that the show will continue to portray a difficult life of people feigning normalcy, or that Rod Serling will lead Tandy to the desert to explain that God and Satan made a cruel bet.
We probably won’t get to meet more characters; the show has a perfect Gilligan’s Island Seven right now, all stranded together on what might as well be an island. Tandy is goofy Gilligan, Todd is the skipper, new Phil is the able professor, Carol is Mary Ann, Melissa is Ginger, and the wealthy-as-sin Howells have been replaced by Gail and Erica. Okay, so the comparison doesn’t line up perfectly, but they are both TV shows dedicated to a singular goal that’s aggravatingly never going to be achieved.
Or maybe we will meet more characters. Who knows what this show will do. An entire truckload could show up in the finale. Ed Harris could accidentally leave his mic on and cue our characters to their Truman Show existence. Tandy might put his hand on his own buttock in order to pretend that it’s a woman’s breast. The potential story directions are virtually endless.
All we really know is that, with two episodes left, the series has finally shifted on its axis with the inclusion of New Phil – Todd is feeling the pangs of jealousy, most of the women are swooning over the alpha male, and with someone else suffering (even just a little), Tandy has the ability to rediscover some humanity.
But he won’t. He never will. He’s the coyote.