[This is a review of Man Seeking Woman season 2, episode 10. There will be SPOILERS.]
It is not unusual for a young series to transition from episodic to more serialized storytelling as the writers' understanding of the characters and the narrative, and their relationship with one another is made greater. Some of FX's best dramas like Justified and The Americans both started out telling ostensibly one-and-done stories that took place within a more complex framework. The shift to serialization granted both series an opportunity to probe deeper, to spend time discovering and examining interesting character minutiae that might otherwise have gone overlooked given the appeal of brutal Kentucky justice or Cold War shenanigans. The difference, however, turned one series into a modern-day Western reinforced by its geographic specificity, while the other has become a taut marital drama woven into the household dynamics of a pair of Russian spies. In other words, in this era of the prestige dramas, serialization is often king.
So where does a surreal comedy find its place in the sovereignty of serialization? Does making that same kind of transition work for comedy – especially one of television's brightest and certainly weirdest? Well, in season 2 of Simon Rich's incredibly funny, offbeat romantic comedy Man Seeking Woman, the shift to more serialized storytelling was initially somewhat threatening, as it seemed destined to do away with the series' most appealing aspect: its mercurial nature. The impulsive changeability of a series loosely defined by the romantic ups and downs of its main character's romantic quests (and subsequent failures) allowed the story of Josh Greenberg (Jay Baruchel) to venture anywhere it saw fit, to alter its tone, its look, and the breadth and depth of its storytelling ambitions without fear of infringing upon continuity. One week would see Josh struggling with sending a text to woman he was interested in to the degree the visual metaphor became a war room of advisors and generals the likes of which hadn't been seen since Dr. Strangelove. Afterwards, the series could then shift to a dystopian future where Josh's best friend Mike (Eric André) was a devoted sex slave to an alien overlord.
There's freedom in that kind of storytelling to be sure, and it allowed Rich and his team of writers the opportunity to flex their creative muscles in a way few writers' rooms on television have. Here was a series primarily about a young man's quixotic pursuit of love and companionship that, at times, seemed to have been laced with LSD. It is wonderful and weird, and often surprisingly emotional, despite (or maybe because of) things like Josh's new girlfriend (Sarah Gadon) being pursued by an undead logger she and her friends accidentally killed years prior, or finding out he is the absentee father of a metaphorical child he and Mike unwittingly created. This kind of unpredictable, surrealistic nature was, oddly, what grounded the series; it gave the audience something to anticipate – like the fact that every episode was essentially going to be about how Josh was underperforming in one aspect of his life or another.
Man Seeking Woman always had elements and characters that carried over from episode to episode, but they fundamentally worked the way such things on all sitcoms do: characters are imbued with a reliable nature, one that affords each episode certain leeway in terms of what can happen to them, giving the appearance of transformation but really keeping them essentially unchanged. But something did change in the early part of season 2: the episodes began sticking together to form a larger story. Josh received a promotion from lowly temp to office manager, thanks to the largess of his essentially indifferent boss – and instead of Josh's job being another joke, a funny little schadenfreude from which the audience might derive just a hint of uncharitable pleasure, this development became the backbone of the latter episodes' sequential narrative.
The season still made time for one-off episodes centered on Josh's sister Liz (Britt Lower) – this time focusing on her torrid love affair with a married Santa Claus (yes, the Santa Claus) – and for Josh to catch a glimpse of his follically challenged future, leading to an unfortunate romance with an affordable midsized sedan. As all that transpired, the groundwork laid earlier gave the second half of season 2 an opportunity to try its hand at serialization. And for a show that seemingly succeeds because it eschews things like hard-and-fast continuity, the push for an ongoing storyline centered on Josh's feelings for Rosa Salazar (American Horror Story, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials) made for an exciting test of the show's ability to preserve its unique, irreverent voice, while deliberately limiting its scope to the confines of an unrequited office romance.
Those two elements, a one-sided infatuation with a co-worker and the dreamlike digressions that Man Seeking Woman loves to take wound up driving the show into interesting, surprisingly ambitious territory. As the series demonstrated, Josh may be the central protagonist but he by no means has to be in every episode. Like it had done with the Liz-centric offerings, season 2 shifted its focus toward Mike and Rosa in 'Eel,' leaving Josh out of the equation until the closing moments. The Josh-less installment not only found time to satirize films like Crouching Tiger and Kill Bill, but it also further explored an undercurrent of creepy male behavior that began in 'Cactus,' where Josh has a bill passed into law requiring people (mostly women) to enter into relationships with men who are "nice" to them.
That episode should be required viewing for those who believe niceness be repaid with romantic interest, but it also demonstrates a significant upside of Man Seeking Woman's shift toward serialization. While the series could have used its characters to make a point about the attitudes and expectations some men have toward dating and the opposite sex at any time, it chose to do so when the woman in question was someone the audience had a more vested interest in. Rosa wasn't simply a punch line meant to once again underscore the series' conceit; because she was a major part of the season's final five episodes, she became a different lens through which Josh and Mike, and to a certain degree, the series itself, could be viewed.
So it seems the concern that Man Seeking Woman might lose its distinct voice and cheeky appeal by anchoring itself to a sequential storyline wasn't really something to be concerned about at all. In fact, the series expanded its voice and its appeal in these last five serialized episodes. And besides, while there was a noticeable dearth of digressions to dystopian futures or destination weddings in hell, in their stead was Fred Armisen as Jesus with a gluten allergy and giant fighting robots disappointing frightened onlookers with a lack of giant-robot fisticuffs. So while the series may be changing the way it's telling its story, things are only getting better as a result.
Screen Rant will have details on the future of Man Seeking Woman, as they are made available.
Photos: Michael Gibson/FX