In the two most recent episodes of The Last Man On Earth, viewers were introduced to Karl, a sweet and mild mannered 40-something played by Fred Armisen. Karl just also happens to be a serial killer. Before I dive into this new character, though, this piece should really begin with an explanation of why The Last Man On Earth is one of the best shows on television at the moment… but perhaps you already knew that.
Perhaps you have already tuned into the brilliant writing, ridiculous scenarios and decidedly mixed bag of cast and characters that make up the dystopian dark comedy. Perhaps you were just like me, and thought Will Forte’s comedic schtick had run its course and any dimensionality it possessed had long since been exposed and then over exposed. And perhaps you were simply ready for a show that stared unabashedly in the face of the increasingly intensifying state of the human condition and our effects on the planet and boiled them all down into one 30-minute comedic masterpiece.
Fortunately, in the four seasons of The Last Man On Earth, Forte has shown that not only do his acting chops go well beyond gut-busting humor, his creativity has proven to be wholly original as the show’s creator and star (who also wrote the pilot). As Phil Miller (Forte) searches desperately for survivors of a pandemic referred to simply as “the virus,” he quickly realizes that he might not only be the last man on Earth, but the last person, period. Despite being the sole survivor of the apocalypse, he appears to take his situation in stride.
Although Phil clearly struggles to maintain his sanity, he does his best to occupy an apparent limited intellect by creating imaginary friends out of various baseballs, tennis balls, and soccer balls along with doing whatever he wants, whenever he wants…which largely involves blowing stuff up. Visiting Washington DC? Why not sleep at the White House? Fan of Van Gogh’s Starry Night? Nab it and put it up in your bedroom. Who’s going to stop you?
Very quickly the viewer realizes that even following the end of the world, life is not so simple. One simple concept upends Phil’s world, as the “Alive in Tucson” signs he’s so thoughtfully placed around the country in his search for other survivors begin to yield results. First one person, Carol (played by Kristen Schaal) shows up, and reintroduces the idea of civility and repopulation. From there, the series continues, as the occasional straggler finds their way to an ever roving and evolving encampment of wayward survivors.
Now in the fourth season, a small but loyal band of characters has relocated from Tucson to Malibu and now to somewhere near Zihuatanejo, Mexico thanks to Todd (Mel Rodriguez) and Melissa’s (January Jones) fascination with The Shawshank Redemption. In the two latest episodes we have been introduced to yet another lonely soul, Karl, played by Fred Armisen.
Much as TLMOE has done with other new characters during the series, Episode 9 of Season 4 focuses entirely on Karl’s backstory. A pre-apocaltypic setting is immediately obvious when we see new faces enjoying a pleasant evening at restaurant. But before a name is even given, Karl’s oddness is immediately revealed during what appears to be a blind date.
Seemingly enjoying the encounter, Karl smiles and laughs as he regales his love interest with a story about how his doctor popped a giant boil on his back. Of course, his date is clearly disgusted. When Karl returns home (alone), he casually reaches in to the freezer for some ice cream, but as he closes the door we catch a glimpse of a frozen and decapitated human head. Creepy? You bet your ass it is. Scary? No. Why? Because Fred Armisen just may be the perfect comedic serial killer, if there ever was one.
Armisen has spent years cultivating his on-screen persona/s in movies, his own wildly popular and strange Portlandia and Saturday Night Live, where Forte also cut his teeth. And cutting teeth is just what Karl is into on TLMOE, as an honestly friendly yet awkward serial killing cannibal with a penchant for lying — and lying about painting. Yet Armisen’s portrayal of a disturbed or tortured individual is incredibly innocent, to a point that you want to like his character, just like Karl’s prison guard does once he is finally arrested in Mexico while fleeing US authorities. In fact, Karl and Martinez (the guard) are the only surviving inhabitants of the Mexican prison once the virus hits.
Armisen’s disarming smile and almost child-like composure allow him to play a multitude of personas on Portlandia, and it works just as well on TLMOE. Whether he is clearly about to murder someone, blatantly falsifying his background, or sipping some Band-Aid tea (yes, you read that correctly), he both repulses and compels; disturbs and disarms; frightens and fascinates. While I believe he may be a comical genius, Armisen may also have been born to play the role of Karl. You will be disgusted by his actions, yet somehow you will not be able to stop laughing.
Excellent writing by Kassia Miller and Matt Marshall spawned Karl. Direction from Jason Woliner and Payman Benz created visually dynamic storytelling that, paired with Armisen’s take on Karl, could be the most original character on TV at the moment. But for how long? We’ll find out when Episode 11 airs Sunday, March 11th on FOX or Hulu.