[This is a review of Man Seeking Woman season 2, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
When FXX debuted Man Seeking Woman a year ago, the show felt destined for cult status, or, more to the point: to be labeled as having a singular charm that appealed to a specific demographic. And while that's true, the series, starring Jay Baruchel and Eric André, and based on the writings of Simon Rich, is deserving of being labeled as more than simply a niche property or having the potential to become a cult hit. That may be a tall order, given how wonderfully weird, imaginative, and unfailingly off-kilter the series is from episode to episode. But given how entertaining and funny the second season premiere is – beyond its more surreal asides – it's clear the show has become as comfortable in its role as a top-notch comedy as it is in being one of TV's most original offerings.
What makes the series work is in part the rich (sorry) material it has to draw from, but there's more to it than that. Man Seeking Woman carries itself with the rare sort of confidence needed to just let its freak flag fly. It understands precisely what kind of television series it is and, more importantly, it knows precisely what it takes to make that particular thing work. The show sees its weirdness as its feature, but not in a way that would potentially distance it from those watching; it doesn't seek opacity from its strange elements but rather to introduce a kind of clarity to its ideas, to speak to its audience in a common tongue, to give life to those tricky emotional things we find difficult to put into words.
For those who aren't familiar with the show (all episodes of season 1 can be streamed on Hulu, by the way), the series is inspired by Simon Rich's story collection The Last Girlfriend on Earth: And Other Love Stories. It follows the romantic misadventures of Josh Greenburg (Baruchel), an underachieving twentysomething looking for love in what should be all the right places – it is a television comedy, after all. And yet, for whatever reason, he typically finds himself without that which he seeks. It's a simple conceit, and an easy way to sell the series, but, at the end of the day, it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of what the show is capable of – and willing to – bring to the screen. Whether it is an alien invasion brought about by convenience store time-travel pills, as a way of illustrating the difficulties of getting over your ex, or a blind date so boring and mechanical it is with an actual robot, the series manages to find the least likely approach to its storylines, while, still pulling off even the most outlandish concepts.
Baruchel is perfectly suited to splash around in Rich's strange universe. He plays Josh with the kind of slightly nervous everyman charm he brought to his roles in Knocked Up and She's Out of My League. But he also brings a mordant quality to his performance that allows him to stare directly into the absurdity of his character's situations without blinking an eye. In the premiere, Baruchel shares a scene with an axe-wielding, undead lumberjack and later, his blood-drenched girlfriend Kelly (Sarah Gadon), and still manages to convey an intense interest in a particularly challenging jigsaw puzzle. It's a strangely layered performance that requires the actor to be self-aware yet oblivious to the rising tide of weirdness at the same time, and Baruchel (as well as his co-star Eric André) is well suited to the task.
André was a standout in season 1, and in the early part of season 2 it seems as though the series is intent on expanding the role of his character, Mike. In the premiere, André shuffles seamlessly from bereaved best friend, who is notified by military personnel that Josh has a "really hot" new girlfriend and that "doctors say he may never hang again," to a union representative trying to negotiate new terms for their friendship in the wake of Josh's newfound preoccupation, and finally, as the single father of their child Sophie (Maya Lowe) – the manifestation of Josh's abandonment of Mike when he began spending all his time with Kelly.
If that sounds like a wild path to take in the span of a single episode, it's because it is. But the strength of Man Seeking Woman comes as much from the universality of the complex, often uncomfortable emotions being tackled, as it is in the weird and unpredictable places each episode eventually finds itself. There is a nugget of truth driving the conceit of each and every narrative, making it strange and funny, but also giving the series the space it needs to be relatable and to ruminate on things like loneliness and insecurity and the pressures of finding happiness and love and success in a world that, at times, seems to literally be conspiring against you. This gives the humor its heart, but it also gives it a through line. Josh may go from being an outsider, watching his girlfriend's inner circle be massacred by the aforementioned lumberjack, to connecting with the metaphorical daughter he never knew he had, but the humor and the weirdness comes from a consistent, meaningful place; it isn't derived from a series of non-sequiturs, like other shows given to similar flights of fancy.
All of this is to say Man Seeking Woman may never rise above its potential as a cult show; its nuttiness may not be what most audiences are looking for in their comedies – romantic or otherwise. But some may see the series' gleefully peculiar style and willingness to explore everyday human emotions in the most unusual way possible as something refreshing and unique – which is a great way to sell the show, come to think of it.
Man Seeking Woman continues next Wednesday with 'Feather' @10:30pm on FXX.
Photos: Michael Gibson/FX