They've revitalised animation with The Lego Movie, given movie comedies a shot in the arm with two hugely successful Jump Street reboots and are set to work their magic on the recently announced Han Solo prequel. Now Phil Lord and Chris Miller are bringing the increasingly moribund network TV sitcom back to life.
Their newest project, The Last Man on Earth, is an anarchic take on life after the apocalypse; written by their old friend and Saturday Night Live comedian Will Forte, who also stars, it arrives on Dave next week. Well received in the US, where it drew solid ratings and was commissioned for a second season, The Last Man on Earth tells the tale of Phil Miller, a schlub of a man who has spent the past year slowly realising that he's the only survivor of a virus that appears to have wiped out the rest of the world.
So far, so straightforward; but what makes The Last Man on Earth interesting is the way it draws on everything from I Am Legend and Castaway to Wall E while possessing a strange, seductive charm of its own. We recognise that Forte's Phil is largely a terrible human being – a man whose initial response to being alive and alone at the end of the world is to start using swimming pools as toilets and go rampaging through empty stores – yet we still follow him on his increasingly demented journey.
"It's a show about somebody for whom the end of the world might turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him," explains Lord. "He maybe wasn't the best guy in the regular world but, if you took that regular world away, he could eventually get back to being the person that all of us hope we can be."
It's another step in Lord and Miller's campaign to turn unpromising high-concept ideas into bona fide hits. Take The Lego Movie: when news broke of a plan to make a film based on the colourful construction bricks, few were enthused. It smacked of product placement ahead of plot, an animated attempt to persuade parents to part with yet more hard-earned cash at their local toy shop. Yet in Lord and Miller's hands, what could have been a crude cash-in became an anti-consumerist tale that stressed the virtues of creativity and working together. One of the biggest hits of 2014, The Lego Movie went from potential disaster to unfairly ignored by the Oscars in just over six months.
Similarly, the decision to reboot the 1980s high-school detective series 21 Jump Street – at that point best known for kick-starting Johnny Depp's career – with Seth Rogen and Channing Tatum in the lead roles was seen as bizarre at best: yet another attempt to trade on a generation's childhood nostalgia and an example of everything that seemed most wrong about the franchise-driven, overblown Hollywood of today. Once again the naysayers were proved wrong as Lord and Miller's smart, sharp comedy became a stylish summer hit before spawning that rare thing, a sequel even better than the original.
Thus it should come as no surprise that The Last Man on Earth is a far from straightforward sitcom. The opening episode stands and falls with Forte, who, as the only person on screen, gives a masterclass in fraying at the seams. At first everything seems, if not happy, then at least weirdly fun as Phil embraces his status, realising that he can go where he wants, wear what he wants and do as he pleases; but things take a darker turn, with Phil's descent into decadence gradually appearing not so much bracing as desperately sad.
"It works, I think, because Will Forte is the best silent comedian of his generation," says Lord. "He reminds us of Buster Keaton – and he always has, since we met 16 years ago. He has a humanity and a sympathetic quality that he brings to the show and a lot of care goes into how the gags are pulled off. That's what audiences respond to."
The New York Times called the show "a cable comedy that has found its way onto a broadcast network" and, certainly, even the most enjoyable moments of pure anarchy – Phil making enormous margaritas, stealing priceless works of arts and blowing things up in increasingly baroque ways – are tinged with loneliness and existential despair. That, its creators say, is the point and the appeal.
"We're not doing a show like Gilligan's Island where we have the Harlem Globetrotters stop by for an episode," says Miller. "Part of the fun in finding the comedy in this is keeping the show grounded in reality. It's about finding the funny things about what would really be the wish fulfilment, the unique relationships and what comes out of actually being the last person (or people) on Earth."
Can they sustain the premise week by week? Suffice it to say that not everything is as it seems – the cast also includes Kristen Schaal and January Jones – and not every US critic was happy with the opening episode's closing twist, but if anyone can make the apocalypse worth tuning into every evening it's Lord and Miller.
'The Last Man on Earth' starts on Dave on Monday at 9pmReuse content