‘Man Seeking Woman’ and Making Emotions Surreal
Man Seeking Woman is a comedy that is deeply and uniquely concerned with the experience of being a person with feelings. Given that, last season, the show featured both an aged Hitler as a romantic interest and a Japanese monster made entirely of penises, this might seem like a bold claim. I have never, not once, cried, or laugh-cried, or taken stock of my personal regrets while watching it. Other than a general state that can only be described as “kinda bummed,” the characters don’t have particularly intense inner lives at all. But in the darkly enchanted world of Man Seeking Woman, feelings aren’t subjective personal experiences but objective public events. Emotions exist as external forces: when someone breaks up with you, a literal thunderstorm appears over your head. When you’re consumed by new love, you actually merge bodies (breakups are particularly gruesome). One cliché at a time, the show turns what things feel like into how things actually are.
In every episode, late-20s mope Josh Greenberg (Jay Baruchel, elevating hapless loserdom into high art) butts up against a near-universal romantic truth, or at least, a romantic truism. Texting is difficult and anxiety-provoking. Your ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend is necessarily terrible. Destination weddings are hell. Couples ditch their friends. Men are threatened by dildos. And then, in each episode, this truism is blown up to whimsically bizarro proportions. The insights themselves aren’t particularly unexpected, but they go unexpectedly far. And so it’s not that your ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend is regular-grade terrible; it’s that your ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend is Hitler. The destination wedding isn’t like hell; it is hell, and the invitation suggests you might want to buy a special sword in case circumstances necessitate you fend off the devil while you’re there.
Simultaneously slapstick and deeply unsettling, the show’s surreal elements exist in a universe that otherwise looks a lot like life, or life-via-mumblecore: a sad-ish dude sitting around his recognizably drab Chicago apartment, eating wings with his best friend (Eric André, the high-energy yin to Baruchel’s melancholic yang), and working a disappointing temp job. It’s the world according to Joe Swanberg, except for the Japanese penis monster in the living room. Created by SNL alum Simon Rich, inspired by his short story collection,The Last Girlfriend on Earth: And Other Love Stories, Man Seeking Woman lives in a reality of its own making: part sci-fi, part surreal, part depressive slice-of-life, part Shouts and Murmurs.
Because the show is, on some level, variations on the same basic joke — what if this figurative thing was a literal thing? — it would be easy to imagine that the formula would begin to grate. But it doesn’t: by following each premise through to, and then past, its logical end point, the show consistently ends up in places that feel surprisingly new. Which doesn’t mean it always works. Cleverness goes far, but, as we learned last season, it can’t revive some of the show’s sleepier tropes. The idea that a committed relationship is a life sentence isn’t totally devoid of emotional truth, but it also feels just a little bit Everybody Loves Raymond. As always, the show took it one step further, loading Josh and his fellow monogamous boyfriends onto a prison bus headed for suburbia, but even at its climax, the vignette didn’t lead us anywhere we haven’t been before. It’s a miss that highlights just how hard it is to traffic in clichés: when it doesn’t work, you end up right back where you started.
Man Seeking Woman is best — or at least, most interesting — when it takes full advantage of the possibilities of its own weirdness, veering dangerously close to sliding off the rails. When, this season, Josh decides to “settle” and begins a tragically sexual romance with a 1998 Saturn, it is gross and so bizarrely inspired that even if your tolerance for surreal car sex is lower than mine (a legitimate perspective), it is difficult not to admire both its boldness and its creativity. When his girlfriend breaks up with him because she realizes, late in life, that she’s actually a “not-Josh-erosexual,” it’s a delightfully depressive take on a near-universal condition.
The biggest change for season two: a move toward ensemble. Rich has promised more emphasis on the emotional turmoil of the supporting cast this season, and perhaps tellingly, the opener begins not with Josh, but with Mike, distraught over his absence. It’s still Josh’s show, but opening it up to more varied perspectives gives the show more room to maneuver. At least as importantly, it opens up space for more Britt Lower, who, as Josh’s exceedingly competent sister Liz, is the unsung hero of the series. (The potential of this hasn’t totally been realized yet this season — her big episode this season so far, in which Liz has a doomed affair with Santa, feels mostly like an excuse for seasonal sexual innuendos — but it’s early days yet.) But while the scope may be broader, the show’s core vision remains exactly the same.
On Man Seeking Woman, all romance leads to disaster. And yet, for a show that amounts to what is essentially a string of unmitigated disappointments, Man Seeking Woman is strangely, deeply, mercifully optimistic. For Josh, every episode offers a clean slate and renewed potential. There are infinite possible ways for things to go wrong (and they will), but, in the show’s absurd universe, there’s also infinite possibility. The end won’t be different, but what matters is that it could be. Rooting for Josh may be hopeless, but you do it anyway: the world is an endless cycle of humiliations and catastrophes, and yet he chugs on. Maybe it’ll work out next time.