With season one’s “Teacup,” Man Seeking Woman reached new heights by giving Josh the week off and following Liz instead, putting the underused Britt Lower center stage and exploring a different perspective on the late twenties dating scene. “Tinsel” returns to this idea, again following Liz, and while the episode may not pack quite the punch of the fantastic “Teacup,” it’s once again a refreshing change of pace for the show and a highlight of the already strong second season.
While “Tinsel” is shaped tremendously by Liz’s gender, the writers do more this time than invert the series’ title, abandoning the show’s usual three or four segment structure to explore one narrative in depth, from beginning to end. This approach works well, letting the writers take full advantage of the delightful premise at the core of the episode, Liz becoming Santa Claus’ mistress. There’s a sense of glee at the heart of “Tinsel,” of the writers and actors being giddy that they get to play with this material, and their enthusiasm is infectious. From Lower’s deadpan, “Santa Claus is coming to town” to Santa’s dirty talk to Mrs. Claus’ utter demolishing of Santa in the press—you own that divorce, Vicki!—each new idea builds wonderfully on what precedes it, the momentum pushing forward to the train scene before ebbing back down to allow for a nicely restrained denouement. This careful arcing takes the audience on what feels like a complete journey, and with Liz unlikely to return to the spotlight this season, the writers can give her closure, showing her in a very different place at the episode’s end than she was at the beginning.
As she was in “Teacup,” Britt Lower is a blast here. Her line delivery throughout is great, and she sells Liz’s attraction to the smarmy old elf. Just as fun is Peter Giles as Santa. Giles is given some truly ridiculous lines, but he makes them sing, making Santa charming and roguish enough—if Santa could ever be called roguish—to believably entice the buttoned up Liz. Robin Givens is also a delight as Vicki Claus, and while Vicki’s willingness to so quickly take back her no good cheat of a husband is disappointing, the quick and tidy conclusion with Santa leaves time for the episode to re-center on Liz at the end. The final scenes of “Tinsel” breathe in a way few episodes of Man Seeking Woman do. Had it been tasked with pivoting to a new concept in its last five to eight minutes, there likely wouldn’t be time to sit with Liz on the couch as she reacts to news of Santa and Vicki’s vow renewal. This quiet shot is a lovely inclusion, a warm counterpoint to the end of “Teacup,” when Liz lay in bed alone, devastated after her disastrous date with Chip. However misjudged, here is a relationship she can at least look back on fondly, and that is enough to get her to lower the walls she likely put up after Leo and take a chance on Jimmie.
Liz’s emotional catharsis throughout “Tinsel” may give the episode its heart, but it’s the holiday humor that will stick with most viewers. When Santa starts talking about working with his hands, he comes across as cheeky and a bit of a horndog, but the episode is just starting. Santa’s seduction of Liz over drinks, invoking sugarplums, milk, and so much more, is deliciously wrong, as is the perfectly timed shot of the child overhearing their conversation as Santa talks his way into a rendezvous upstairs. It’s the model train scene, however, that pushes the episode over the top, a hilarious choice handled excellently, the camera following the train and building anticipation to the less than subtle scene-ending reveal. The writers are well aware they won’t top this moment, so they don’t try, leaving it as the high point of Liz and Santa’s relationship before Santa leaves Vicki and everything starts to unravel. As their relationship loses its shine, the holiday references subside, and this lets the Christmas train set linger in the mind, a visual viewers will have to work to forget, should they so desire. Holiday-themed television episodes are plentiful, but it’s hard to think of many as irreverent and unapologetic as this one.
“Tinsel” may not have the pointed commentary of series-best “Teacup,” but its blend of character examination and laugh out loud, ridiculous humor makes it another standout episode in the already consistent, entertaining second season of Man Seeking Woman. The series has played to its strengths and explored new ground tonally, structurally, and visually this season, and hopefully even more creativity is around the corner.
- While I focused on how the episode’s change in format affected its storytelling more than its change in perspective, all of “Tinsel” is informed by Liz’s gender. Josh has never had to deal with slut shaming, for example, but Liz is confronted with it time and again this episode, and Liz’s graphing calculator stands out in Santa’s memory next to the female-coded My Little Pony toys he dismisses, an interesting commentary on desirability and gender constructs.
- I love that it takes Santa literally crashing into Liz’s life to finally break through her defenses, and that her initial instinct is to grab a giant candlestick and wail on him.
- Once again, this season’s Liz-centric episode has me champing at the bit for a Robin Duke episode. I would be surprised if there wasn’t a story behind Liz’s mom’s warning to her about married—and famous—men.
- The holiday music throughout the episode is a nice touch, particularly using songs like “The Holly And The Ivy,” a popular but somewhat less common Christmas carol, to maintain the seasonal tone.
- Once again, the details in costuming, set design, and hair and makeup elevate the series. Of course Santa keeps his boots and undershirt on in bed, while Liz goes au natural, and after an episode full of chic black and white ensembles, with a dash of purple, from Liz, her large green scarf at the end feels like a deliberate choice to show her warming up to Jimmie and her coworkers. Also, Vicki’s red and white suit is fabulous.
- This episode gives new and entertaining subtext to Grimm’s “The Grimm Who Stole Christmas,” which introduces Monroe’s beloved Christmas train set.