The second season of FOX’s post-apocalyptic comedy, The Last Man on Earth, is now underway. Though its 27 September premiere was met with mixed reviews, its three million-plus US viewers suggest that pop culture’s adulation of the post-apocalyptic is alive and well—even if those stark landscapes are dead and dry.
As a genre, the post-apocalyptic was originally the stuff of cynical dime-store sci-fi and, later, Cold War nuclear anxieties, but the modern popularity of the post-apocalypse in publishing, films, and television—and that the post-apocalyptic also now serves as a comedic backdrop for profitable products like The Last Man on Earth—belies an over-familiarity with the genre. More importantly, the continued appeal of the post-apocalyptic reflects our culture’s exhaustion with the genre’s historically prophetic (and moralistic) warnings about exploitation, materialism, and consumerism.
The Last Man on Earth stars Will Forte (also the show’s creator) as the brash, incompetent Phil Miller, a 40-something temp-job slacker and one of the few survivors of an unknown, unnamed global virus that claims the planet by 2020. The first season, which premiered in March 2015, opened with Miller answering the popular icebreaker: What would you do if you were the last person on Earth? The question has been at the fore of cinematic imagination for decades, with films like The Omega Man (1971), 28 Days Later (2002), and I Am Legend (2007) as canon for the post-apocalyptic genre.
However, despite the relative success of these and other similar films (like the Mad Max franchise, 1979-, the Terminator franchise, 1984-, The Road, 2009, The Quiet Earth, 1985, and more), they nonetheless resonate most strongly with their cult audiences, who have a higher tolerance for speculation than their mainstream counterparts. This makes The Last Man on Earth’s success so surprising, especially on a mainstream network in a primetime slot. As Margaret Lyons of Vulture notes, “For a show that shouldn’t really work at all, Last Man works pretty well.”
The restrictive premise of a Cast Away-like one-man-show for The Last Man on Earth is soon disrupted in the first season by the arrival of the “last woman on earth”, Kristen Schaal, who plays the eccentric ex-Delawarean Carol Andrew Pilbasian. Her dogmatic enforcement of social decorum disrupts Forte’s unbound id trip, typified by his salt-rimmed margarita pool and living room collection of museum miscellany. After getting married to Pilbasian, Miller’s plans are further disrupted by the arrival of more survivors, including January Jones as middle-class yuppie Melissa Shart, Mel Rodriguez as plucky loser Todd, and others (Cleopatra Coleman as Erica, Mary Steenburgen as Gail, Boris Kodjoe as the second/better Phil Miller, and a cow) who, at the end of the first season, agree to kick the misanthropic Miller out of his home city of Tucson. The story continues in season two with Miller and Pilbasian at their shared id-party on the floors of the Oval Office.
In many ways, The Last Man on Earth began as a unique take on the post-apocalypse, but with the entry of new characters and dynamics, it has since devolved into a familiar sitcom premise with an unconventional backdrop. This has prompted some reviewers, like Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter, to point to the show’s “genre-busting” concept as a possible explanation for its post-apocalyptic/comedic allure. Indeed, its unique blend of otherwise disparate genres breathes welcome ingenuity into staid Sunday night television comedy. It’s also telling of the genre’s intimate relationship with cultural attitudes and appetites.
Though critics lack a consensus on what exactly genre is—who makes a genre, who the definitions serve, from where it’s derived, how it evolves, and so forth—Rick Altman’s 1999 work Film/Genre serves as a reliable signpost for guiding the conversation. For Altman, genre isn’t preexisting and, therefore, non-negotiable, but rather, arises diachronically or through particular historical moments as the result of various “semantic” forces, such as industry, marketing, audience, and criticism. These forces then “syntactically” inform the genre’s development with audiences and artists. For example, with the post-apocalyptic, we expect bleak landscapes, sole survivors, decaying cities, and so forth. (John Pantzalis’ 2001 essay, “The Semiotics of Consumption in Post-Apocalyptic Movies”, serves as a good primer for understanding the complexities of the post-apocalyptic genre.)
In other words, for Altman, genre is dynamic. When the post-apocalyptic first hit the visual media scene, with films like Deluge (1933) and End of the World (1931), it was not yet a genre. Instead, these films corresponded to prevailing genre categories of the time—science fiction, romance, and so forth. It wasn’t until the end of World War II and the associated rise of nuclear paranoia and the Cold War that “apocalypse” entered popular consciousness as a conceivable event. This gave audiences and industry the semantic capability to categorize speculative films further. Thus we have what I call the first wave of post-apocalyptic cinema with films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and many others, now considered classics of the genre.
As this first wave continued throughout the ’50s and ‘60s, the bulk of post-apocalyptic films had implicit historical referents—and sometimes, explicit warnings—directly tied to cultural anxieties surrounding the specter of Communism and the threat of nuclear war. If they weren’t campy, the films were largely serious. Even the satirical outliers, like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), were morally somber, and culturally cynical.
By the ’70s and ‘80s, as the culture began to internalize its nuclear anxieties and as the Cold War grew even colder in the face of economic unease in the US, the landscapes of the post-apocalyptic had already become familiar. Various first-wave post-apocalyptic films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers were rebooted for younger audiences; classic apocalyptic films like Omega Man, Zardoz (1974), Soylent Green (1973), and Escape from New York (1981) made handsome profits. New post-apocalyptic franchises were born with Planet of the Apes, Mad Max, and The Terminator. In addition to frequent references to some holdover anxieties from the previous decades, this new wave of post-apocalyptic media began playing on culture’s nascent fears involving consumption, technological proliferation, environmental degradation, and corporate control.
The ’90s were a time of relative peace and economic stability, and the post-apocalyptic products of this decade effectively served as a wind-down of the genre’s second wave. Some films reimagined previous waves’ post-apocalyptic horrors, like Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995) as an interpretation of Chris Marker’s La Jetee (1962) or John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. (1996) as a sequel to his 1981 film, Escape from New York. But generally, the post-apocalypse in the ‘90s was the apex aesthetic of the decade, with films like Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998), Terminator 2 (1991), Judge Dredd (1995), Waterworld (1995), and especially The Matrix (1999) setting new precedents for aesthetics and economics of big-budget sci-fi.
Gone was the moralistic “here’s what we can do to stop it”-stance of post-apocalypse’s first wave, and gone was the countercultural ethos of the genre’s early second wave. Instead, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek famously said of the apocalyptic threat ubiquitous in ‘90s cinema, “Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world—an asteroid destroying all of life, and so on—but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism.” And capitalism, of course, is the omnipresent but invisible evil of all post-apocalyptic narratives. Or, was, anyway.
After the start of the new millennium, and specifically, the terror attacks of 9/11, the post-apocalyptic genre took a new, darker turn. The worlds of 28 Days Later, Children of Men (2006), and I Am Legend are sparse, lifeless, dangerous, and filled with the waste of pompous architecture and crass consumerism—as if we failed in our cultural chance to respond to the warnings prophesied by end-of-world media for the past half-century. Rather than serving as standalone products in most cases, this latest post-apocalyptic genre wave is now geared towards a well-established, profitable, international target market. The evils forecasted in the post-apocalyptic media of yore, such as corporate control, environmental decay, genocide, disease, famine, starvation, and pollution—all of which can be framed or historicized as byproducts of a capitalist ethos—are now simply acknowledged as inevitable. If this wasn’t clear in the wake of 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, it was rarefied in the fires of the 2008 economic collapse.
Since 2008, post-apocalyptic entertainment has reached a fever pitch, from the blockbusting success of The Hunger Games (and its various spinoffs, like Divergent), Interstellar (2014), and Pacific Rim (2013), to the proliferation of end-of-times television shows like Dark Angel, Jericho, Jeremiah, The Leftovers, The Walking Dead, and myriad others. With the economy, student debts, job futures, and even basic healthcare was thrown into uncertainty after 2008, newfound cultural anxieties proliferated and have been reflected (and even fueled) by the past decade’s spate of post-apocalyptic media.
Additionally, though the American government has long been oligarchic—and though corporations have long been exempt from punishment for all sorts of heinous abuses against people, economies, and ecosystems—cultural consciousness is slowly becoming aware, on a popular level, of these dystopian phenomena. On the one hand, a la Zizek, these phenomena should provoke habit change or outright revolution. Instead, they play out in the entertainment industry both semantically and syntactically; genres are refined, and so are their target markets. Post-apocalyptic is no longer merely post-apocalyptic, but—as a dynamic force—becomes post-apocalyptic comedy, as with The Last Man on Earth, or post-apocalyptic documentary, as with The History Channel’s Life After People (2009-2010), and so forth. This is how genre changes, and it’s how culture changes, too.
In other words, as reflected by this new genre shift and temperature, it’s clear that we’re becoming bored with the post-apocalyptic. Of course, this isn’t to the detriment of media; I’m a huge fan of writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s work Last Man on Earth, especially because it’s such an unorthodox product for a mainstream network. Maybe it will survive past its second season, or maybe it won’t—but either way, it has impacted the conversation. Culturally, as The Last Man on Earth relates to The End, we’ve become more resigned, more morose, or, simply, more pro-apocalyptic. Whatever critical power was buried in earlier instances of post-apocalyptic entertainment has given way to the cynical commercialism and exploitation once explicitly warned against by the genre. Disagree? Head to Soylent.com and order a bottle for yourself.