Jay Baruchel has a comic energy that’s very different than the other young actors who came up through Judd Apatow’s farm system. As far back as his breakthrough role in Apatow’s sitcom Undeclared, Baruchel’s been the unassuming, polite-to-a-fault nebbish, surrounded by self-satisfied libertines. It’s doubtful that the new FXX show Man Seeking Woman would work as well as it does without Baruchel at its center, shrugging meekly.
As recently dumped Chicagoan Josh Greenberg, Baruchel spends each episode of Man Seeking Woman going on dates that range from the realistically awkward to the exaggeratedly bizarre. All the while, he maintains an old-fashioned romantic optimism that sets him apart from his Tinder-adept best friend Mike (played by Eric André), who goes out every night expecting to have adventurous sex with women he’ll never see again. Here’s the Josh/Mike dynamic in a nutshell: When Josh tells Mike that he’s just met a woman with really nice eyes, Mike nods like he knows just what Josh is talking about, then asks, “Like you want to jizz all in ’em or somethin’?”
Man Seeking Woman was created by Simon Rich, and is based on his short story collection The Last Girlfriend On Earth. It’s trying something that hasn’t been done too often on television: to bring the sophisticated absurdism of a New Yorker humor piece to life. (It hasn’t been tried that much in movies either, outside of the early Woody Allen films and the underrated Steve Martin comedy The Lonely Guy.) The tone is set in the opening scene, when Josh collects some of his stuff from his ex-girlfriend, Maggie (Maya Erskine), and then walks back to his apartment in a storm of rain, hail, and dead birds, all localized in a 6-foot radius surrounding his body. There are no cues in Man Seeking Woman that some scenes are happening in Josh’s head and some are happening in real life. This show exists in a universe where if Josh goes on a blind date with “a troll,” she’s a literal troll, who lives under a bridge and eats garbage.
It’s not that easy to make vibrant comedy out of material that’s often better suited to the page, where readers can visualize some of the more out-there elements. And honestly, Man Seeking Woman falls flat about a third of the time. The good news is that each episode is made up of a handful of vignettes, and the three episodes sent out to critics—“Lizard,” “Traib,” and “Gavel”—all have as many inspired, hilariously funny sequences as moments that strain to connect.
“Lizard” gets off to the roughest start with that troll date, which is overly broad and slapstick-heavy. But that episode also has Man Seeking Woman’s funniest sketch so far, where Josh finds out that Maggie’s new boyfriend is a 126-year-old, wheelchair-bound Adolf Hitler, played by Bill Hader. (Everyone assumes Josh only objects to the romance because he’s not over Maggie yet, not because Hitler is a genocidal racist). “Traib” is the weakest overall episode of the first three, but it too has a terrific five-minute stretch where Josh calls on the Center For Important Emergencies—led by Battlestar Galactica’s Michael Hogan—to help him compose the perfect text to a potential new date (played by Saturday Night Live’s Vanessa Bayer). “Gavel,” meanwhile, has the longest successfully sustained bit in any of these three episodes, as Josh keeps getting hauled into relationship court to argue that spending time with Maggie doesn’t violate the terms of any agreement he has with his latest girlfriend.
That “Gavel” scene benefits tremendously from the direction of Ben Berman, a former Tim And Eric editor who brings a real sense of pace and energy in the way he keeps cross-cutting between Josh and Maggie getting closer on the couch and Josh pleading his innocence in the courtroom next door. That Josh has to keep getting up from that couch to go appear before the judge is a great example of how Man Seeking Woman’s staging obliterates the fantasy/reality line. There’s a physical presence and substance to even the show’s most surreal ideas. “Lizard” and “Traib”—directed by another Tim And Eric (and Portlandia) vet, Jonathan Krisel—are a little clumsier, though again, both hit a good stride eventually.
One of the problems with literalizing Rich’s comic fantasies is that it runs the risk of coming off as misogynistic, pitting sweet-natured Josh against a parade of women who run the gamut from grotesque to merely intrusive. (One of the running jokes of the first three episodes is that Josh’s girlfriends always stock his pantry with almond milk.) That’s where it helps to have Baruchel, whose screen presence defaults to “overmatched.” It’s not women who exclusively who get the better of Josh; it’s everybody. It just so happens that Man Seeking Woman is about Josh’s endearingly naïve quest for true love, so it focuses more on scenes like the one where Josh is visited by “sex aliens from the planet Sex” and has to tell the ladies that he can’t pleasure them right now because he’s in a relationship.
What makes Man Seeking Woman so promising is that it’s such a strong showcase for Baruchel. It’s hard to say whether Rich and his writers will be able to keep coming up with new trolls and aliens for Josh to disappoint, but it seems unlikely that they’ll ever exhaust the comic tension between the sunny Josh and cold, cruel dating world he finds himself exploring. (That’s what makes setting the show in chilly Chicago such a smart choice.) Some of the funniest moments in Man Seeking Woman aren’t the strangest. The heart of the show is in the scenes where Mike tells Josh that if he tries harder to be cool he will “crush gash,” and Josh quietly objects, saying, “Every gash is somebody’s daughter.”