FX’s current slate of shows offers a drama or comedy (and something in between) for just about every viewer, so it’s easy for some shows to slip through the cracks. But Man Seeking Woman, from Simon Rich and Lorne Michaels, has managed to become the little surreal comedy that could. The series is now in its third season, where it’s probably flown under your radar, despite featuring an exceptional cast that includes Jay Baruchel and Britt Lower. They play siblings Josh and Liz Greenberg, who take turns being lovelorn (to varying degrees) in the story as well as the title, which becomes Woman Seeking Man for Liz’s standalone episodes. The brother and sister don’t have a ton in common beyond being charming and close to their mom, so they cope with romantic setbacks in very different manners. While at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, The A.V. Club spoke with Baruchel and Lower about what we can expect from the new season, as well as which Greenberg kid has more heart.
The A.V. Club: We’re now a couple episodes in, but the season three trailer already set up the reworked premise, which is that Josh Greenberg is a man with a woman from the outset. He and Lucy (Katie Findlay) get serious pretty quickly. At this point, is Josh just more impulsive, or craving commitment?
Jay Baruchel: I think it was more just we already are seeing what Josh in courtship looks like. So I think it was just an inspired storytelling technique on Simon [Rich]’s part to show us meet [Snaps fingers.], and then to jump into our relationship, because we had done two years of seeing what it looks like to date and text back and forth and all that shit. What this season is about is what it is to live with two people. It’s all a love and hate letter to domesticity. I thought it was cool that we jumped right into it.
AVC: They’ve already had the argument over who keeps what in their new place, though that went to a much darker place than the Goodwill donation box. What other relationship growing pains will we see?
JB: Oh, fuck. Well, everything from impressing each other’s parents, impressing each other’s friends, income equity and parity, two working people living in the same place. There’s all sorts of… what it is to live with somebody that you love. Petty resentment, compassion, sympathy—they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive in a serious relationship. We kind of play with all of those.
AVC: Money might be the least talked about issue when it comes to romance and relationships.
JB: But it’s a thing!
AVC: It is a thing.
JB: Yeah, there’s also success and rooting for your significant other, but also feeling inadequate or even a hint of jealousy, anything like that. I think these are all real things. I think part of what makes our show as good as it is is that as kind of arch as we go in our sequences, the show works because we talk about really real, truthful, minute things. [They’re] very subtle, our observations. But also universal. So there’s nothing we articulate that isn’t an everyday part of people’s lives.
AVC: For all the flights of fancy, it’s very grounded—that’s how I’ve described it from the beginning. Another thing that struck me right away is that Man Seeking Woman has a distinct visual style.
JB: One hundred percent.
AVC: It has its own language in that way.
JB: Completely. Even in our dialogue, it is nobody’s mission to come up with a catchphrase of any kind. That being said, I think our words are as strong as anything on TV. I think what’s most proprietary in our show is this combination of what seem like competing forms that actually end up informing each other. Which is the kind of broad cartoon come-to-life aspect and the roll your sleeves up and hash out every single problem you have, very character-y, people talking in a room. And I think that if the show was just one or the other, it would not connect to people. I think that these two things, they cut the acidity of one another. The minute that we might push up against the ceiling and get too crazy, we always come back down with something incredibly real and organic and emotional.
AVC: A lot of people classify Man Seeking Woman as a surreal comedy, and that works, too. But there are also a lot of little things that seem kind of bizarre at first, but are really just straightforwardly funny. I think that’s what we got with “Ranch.”
JB: Awesome. I agree completely. Our show—it’s hard to fit it into one little tagline or one sentence. The best way I can describe our show is that it’s handmade. It has a soul, it has a personality. You can tell when you eat a cookie if it came from your mom’s oven or from the store. I think we make cookies from our mom’s oven, so stick to that analogy. But I think you can feel a very distinct voice in our show, a combination of voices.
I think that when you’re watching our show, most people feel it here. [Hits his chest.] There’s a bullshit meter. You can tell. Even if you don’t like it, you can tell when something’s authentic. I think that whatever issues anyone might have with our show, nobody would ever take issue with its authenticity. It’s definitive, and we all know what we’re doing, and we all kind of have the same end in mind. What’s awesome is Simon has created this sandbox where we all get to throw ideas in, and that’s how you get things like ranch dressing. Just random people sharing horror stories, and that makes it colorful.
AVC: And I understand that we’re finally going to meet Josh and Liz’s dad. Why was it important to introduce him this season?
JB: Because we’ve seen one half of what makes Josh and Liz the way they are. Every single person is equal parts both their parents, or the absence of one or the other, but the effect is there. He was this great question mark this whole time. I think why he appears this year is because we get to see why Liz ticks the way she ticks. Josh is far closer to his mom and step-dad, personality-wise and taste-wise, than Liz is. Liz is kind of an alien. Now we see why, and we see where she gets it from. It ends up—again, it’s very sneakily emotional in that episode.
AVC: See, I thought it was because of Josh and Lucy’s engagement, which Patti [Josh and Liz’s mom, played by Robin Duke] does not appear to take well in a promo we’ve seen.
JB: Actually, in fact, she takes it too well.
AVC: Well, Katie Findlay is great as Lucy, so I get why Patti is so into her.
JB: She lives vicariously through us, and I’m her only son, and they’re very old-fashioned. Get the job, check that box. Get the woman, check that box. Get married, check that box. It’s what they’re waiting for. Josh has given them plenty of reason to question if that would ever happen. When it does happen, she fucking loses her shit. She’s also very psyched—she’s more in love with Lucy than Josh is even.
AVC: It’s funny to me that you bring up “old-fashioned,” because I wouldn’t describe this show that way, not stylistically. But the Greenbergs’ values are certainly depicted that way.
JB: Again, I think that’s something that’s mined from real life. Everybody’s always caught between a rock and a hard place with that stuff. You grow up seeing greeting cards and watching Hollywood movies and you’re told that your life is meant to be a certain way, and your parents are secretly rooting—sometimes not secretly rooting—for that to happen. What does that person who’s raised that way—how are they at odds with the landscape of being social nowadays? That conflict in there yields some pretty funny results.
AVC: A lot of shows that are about modern romance or modern dating actually work to subvert it, to throw all of our old ideas out the window, but that’s not really where you guys are going.
JB: Absolutely not, because I think our show says and has said from day one that those ideas are not necessarily—it’s not always one or the other. The one thing that unites all of us is that we’ve all been hurt or have hurt, and we’re all human beings, so we’re genetically programmed to want to pair up at some point. As much as people want to deconstruct what it is to be in a couple, I still think that the old-fashioned goal remains the same regardless of what your gender or your orientation is. You hope to find someone that loves you and that you love, and you can share a life with. I guess that is quite old-fashioned. That’s been on our sleeve the whole time.
AVC: Your show has a very ardent following, but it’s not huge. But FXX seems perfectly content with that.
JB: I call it our pirate ship. I didn’t think we’d do more than a pilot, and I didn’t think we’d do more than one season, and so for me to be sitting here talking to you about season three, it’s like, Simon and I just keep waiting for someone to realize what we’re doing up there and to say, “Wait, wait a second.” Because we’ve had almost zero censorship, and they really want us to create this show, and we have this awesome sandbox, and we want to keep doing it as long as anyone lets us. But we also know what the landscape of television looks like, and shows as distinct as ours don’t often last very long. So we’re incredibly grateful and thankful and real proud of the ardent following we have. There’s kids that have been with us since day one. All are welcome. We want as many people to dig it as possible.
AVC: What is the craziest thing you guys shot for season three? Because we’ve already seen cults, parkour, and that Old Yeller homage. And that’s just in the first two episodes.
JB: Yep. [Laughs.] Well, next week we go to a medieval town square and pay homage to WikiLeaks. Every time we do a bit, that’s the reaction, like, “Oh fuck yeah! How come you guys haven’t done that yet?” And it’s amazing that there’s still bits for us to do, because it feels like we’ve mined a lot of them to their utmost end. As long as people keep doing stupid stuff, as long as people keep being people, we’ll have stuff to write about. God himself makes an appearance this year, which is exciting. We’ve seen Jesus, now we see his dad.
AVC: Is it just going to be Fred Armisen with a different wig?
JB: I don’t know if I’m allowed to say. I probably am. It’s Richard Kind. He comes to our wedding, and he’s less than thrilled with the fashion in which we’re getting married.
The A.V. Club: We’re a few episodes into the season, but we’ve seen you play Liz for over two seasons. What struck me about her is, she seems to be much better at being single than Josh is.
Britt Lower: I think that’s a really good observation. Liz is obviously an alpha female career woman, and she’s really proud of that. This season takes a leap of faith in that the episode isn’t about romantic love, it’s about familial love for the Liz episode.
AVC: Oh great! So we are getting—
BL: You’re going to get a Liz episode. Liz achieves a career benchmark that she’s been wanting her whole life, and she goes to seek validation from mom and Tom [their step-father, played by Mark McKinney]. They’re so wrapped up in—I can’t say the spoiler—they’re so wrapped up in something else that they’re not excited about Liz’s biggest news of her life. So she seeks out the validation from her biological father, who you will meet this season. He’s played by Peter Gallagher, who’s amazing. I think he was kind of this puzzle piece that came into play, obviously in the third season, that really helps us understand where Liz is coming from. Up until that point, I think when you look at Liz with the rest of the family, it’s kind of confusing. She doesn’t seem to fit in completely.
AVC: She’s hyper-competent compared to everyone else. She’s an expert on her family, but that makes her mostly an observer. Josh and Patti are the ones who so far have really had their relationship on screen.
BL: I think what’s exciting for the character of Liz is to see this highly competent person go through something very vulnerable, which is wanting acceptance from your parents, and when they’re not totally geeked about what you’re doing, then it’s such a human feeling. Where the show shines is it actualizes these internal metaphors that we have such a hard time trying to explain, and then Simon Rich so brilliantly paints the visual world so that you can feel what the characters are feeling. Now in our third season, we’re finally getting good at talking about it, because it’s been a hard show to explain to people.
AVC: Yeah, there’s a visual shorthand. Lucy gets beaten up pretty bad in the premiere, but a great first date with Josh wipes the slate clean. There’s no real dialogue, but because most of us have been there, you just understand.
BL: Yeah, there’s a universality to the specifics of the show that are so delightful. I often say you can watch the show on silent and you’ll still get a very rich story because the world is so visually compelling. All of its absurdity and surrealist theater antics, it’s actually a quite sincere show about trying to find love, and not only love romantically, but between Josh and Liz, it’s that sister-brother love. Mike and Josh, it’s that brotherly love. As I said for the Liz episode, it’s about, how do you show the people who are closest to you in your family how you love them? It’s hard.
AVC: The show’s really moved beyond just the romantic love. In the last season, they looked at the friendship between Josh and Mike and how having a girlfriend can affect them, can come between them. And this season, we’re going to see more of the family dynamic. That stuff would get put on a back-burner in a strict romantic comedy.
BL: Yeah, and I just want to say, too, that fans and everyone should look out for Robin Duke this season, because they’ve given her some incredible premises that she just sinks her teeth into. I think it’s such a rare opportunity to see a woman get to play such broad characters that are just fall-on-the-floor funny. So I just want to commend the writers and creators of the show for allowing her to shine. It’s such a love letter to mom this season.
AVC: Despite being called Man Seeking Woman, this show has great female characters. Patti definitely has her own life with Tom—she worries about Josh because she can’t help that, but she’s definitely got her own life. Liz leads her own life, too. It’s career-oriented, but what’s wrong with that?
BL: Yeah, and I think that’s how Liz feels. I love getting to step into her shoes, because she is such a badass. By the way, I will never get sick of hearing about well-developed female characters. That is such a relief, it’s a gift to be presented with a well-developed female character who’s not just interested in finding Prince Charming.
AVC: But what is it about Liz that makes her able to kind of deal with these dry spells? She’s just very good at standing on her own.
BL: Yeah, that’s true.
AVC: But it isn’t like that other end of the spectrum, where she’s cold or bitchy or anything like that. Like you said, she and Josh are actually very close.
BL: Yeah, I think they do have a kind of kindred spirit that maybe even if they weren’t related, they might be friends. But I think this episode this season, you’ll understand a bit more what drives Liz to pursue her career as a lawyer, and that’s with the father element. Peter Gallagher’s also a lawyer—you kind of see where she set her goals toward that at an early age. I’m always excited to watch Liz make mistakes. It’s fun to play a character who’s at once struggling to be perfect, and on the other hand, incredibly vulnerable and scared, just like the rest of us.