Friday, March 10, 2017


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For the last 3 years, Man Seeking Woman has been the most slept-upon comedy on TV.  It’s made no ratings splash, garnered no significant award buzz or critical accolades, and developed an internet following that is mostly silent and largely theoretical.  And that’s a shame, because it is one of the most insightful looks at millennial romance you’ll find anywhere.  But it’s also understandable, as it is definitely the strangest; an insistently trapezoidal peg that apparently preferred toiling in surreal obscurity to fitting itself to any of the variously-shaped holes that TV offers for half hour comedies.

Based on a memoir by Simon Rich, the show follows thoroughly unimpressive everydude Jay Baruchel as he searches for romance in Chicago.  That it’s Toronto, poorly (and pointlessly) subbing for the Windy City is the least of the oddball touches. The episodes take the form of a series of vignettes, which makes it almost a sketch comedy, albeit one with a core cast of recurring characters.  In tone and content, the best I can describe it is if you took the minute social anthropology of Seinfeld, but turned all the similes into metaphors. And then you filmed it with the loving eye for detail of Key And Peele’s movie parodies.  So instead of George and his girlfriend fighting over whether ending their relationship requires dual consent “like turning two keys to launch a nuclear missile”, MSW would put them in an actual military bunker with a Michael Ironside-type general lectured them about the irreparable severity of their decision.  Or in one episode, his new girlfriend may still be friends with her ex, who is literally Jesus, while in the next his own ex’s rebound relationship is with literally Hitler.

This structure gives it the unpredictability and unevenness of sketch comedy, so a single episode may have a ten minute segment whose conceit never really gets off the ground, then totally blindside you with an extended detour down a truly bizarre, hilarious path.  When a bit is firing on all cylinders, it can be as wildly and uniquely funny on as any show on TV, but it also has to transition between those bits and the dead fish without the benefit of the hard-out and full reset that a true sketch format affords. And on the flip side, it also has too loose a relationship with reality or continuity for character investment to carry those transitions.  People may feel compelled to keep up week after week with a show like Parks and Rec or New Girl, solely in order to keep up with what’s going on or ‘ship a particular couple.  Even as someone who loves the show, I was always tuning in for pointed jokes rather than to see whether Josh would-they or wouldn’t-they with the Woman du jour. 

This odd hinterland of comedy encompasses tone as well as structure.  It embraces absurdity and tangents like an Adult Swim cartoon, and is willing to work similarly blue, but those shows are more interested in the transgressive elements as comedic ends unto themselves.  MSW uses its more twisted concepts for contrast, a means of mining domestic minutia for fresher laughs – for example, an extended segment of our “woke” 20somethings debating whether it is charmingly chivalrous or regressively chauvinistic for a suitor to ask the father of his intended’s permission…to have anal sex with her.

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That bit further demonstrates how the tone falls in the margins of cable single-cam comedies as well.  It’s far too exaggerated and silly for one of the more conceited “artcoms” like Better Things or Master Of None, and while it demonstrates a definite caustic streak, it’s not deep or acidic enough to fit with the strain of “asshole comedy” that It’s Always Sunny or Veep excel at.  Because while its characters are necessarily much more malleable than the leads of a more traditional, narrative-driven sitcom, the show’s cynicism is reserved for the institutions and ritualism of courtship and cohabitation.  It likes and wants us to empathize with its core cast (even, intermittently, Eric Andre’s ur-bro character), rather than hold them in the mild contempt we have for the Gang or the titular League or Workaholics.  But it’s still too goofy and strange to hit the depths of pathos that more grounded, bracing series like The Office or You’re The Worst are capable of reaching. 

At least in its first two seasons.  The third season switched up the formula by introducing a new girlfriend for Josh in Lucy (Katie Findlay), having them move in together halfway through the premiere and get married in the finale.  This provided a stronger emotional throughline than the more standalone misadventures that preceded it, but also seemingly brought the titular quest to a sweet, fitting, and natural resolution.  It’s a perfect place to say, if not farewell, then at least a hearty “woof woof, cowabunga!” to the series.

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You may think there was something funnier than
this on TV this year.  You are wrong, though.

But if anything, the show would be more constrained by its title going forward than its abilities.  Even before the introduction of Lucy as a full-fledged co-lead who carried half the episodes on her own, the show had made an annual tradition of handing one episode a year over to Josh’s sister Liz (Britt Lower), episodes that keep the surreality but effortlessly shift focus to consistently produce highlights of the season.  The show has yet to find similar emotional resonance in Eric Andre’s Mike outside of his relationship with Josh, but even if there is not blood in that particular stone, I’m sure this creative team could find material for at least 20 sketches in the travails of newlyweds screwing up their honeymoon, buying a home, a pet, and eventually having a kid.  But realistically, FX is likely to take the natural out the latest finale presents and call it a wrap.  And it’s hard to begrudge them that decision, since 3 seasons is a perfectly fair shot for a show with the unspectacular ratings profile I mentioned before.  Man Seeking Woman’s quiet refusal to be anything but its bizarre, difficult-to-champion self may have made it always destined to only gradually come to be more appreciated as people discover its good-looking corpse on their own, streaming terms.   There are worse fates possible for even brilliant shows.  Just ask the shambling corpse of a) Arrested Development, b) The X-Files, c) Gilmore Girls, or d) hopefully not Twin Peaks.

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