In the season three premiere of Man Seeking Woman, we watch as a young woman, Lucy (Katie Findlay), endures a day of increasing misfortune, including battling a puma at work. She survives, and even makes it to her dinner date with a young man she’s meeting for the first time. They hit it off, so, wounds aside, she tells her roommate at the end of the night that she had a good day.
The episode shifts into a lighthearted commentary on the immigration debate, a move that’s only surprising if you’re not already a fan of the show. That’s because Simon Rich’s romantic comedy knows that dating can be hell—wait, maybe that’s weddings—a notion that was well illustrated in the first two seasons. The flights of fancy also capture the highs of falling in love, an arc that’s dominated this third season. Our protagonist, Josh (Jay Baruchel), has been spared the pursuit, but not all of his previous agony. As neatly as that premiere episode was resolved, there’s a lot that goes into making a relationship work, which we saw in the season’s first seven episodes.
“Futon” gave us just a glimpse at the very full life of Lucy, who arrived this season to put an end to the show’s titular quest. And while it’s not the focus of the episode, the sequence earns a lot of sympathy for a character we’ve just met, who moves in with Josh long before the end credits. Findlay made an impressive debut and continues to endear her character to Josh and viewers. Lucy’s shouldering a lot of the surreal burden this year, whether she’s warning Josh away from her childhood home, which is “haunted” by her parents’ disappointment, or imagining herself with someone else after falling into a rut (a figurative one, this time). But she’s more than a female analogue to Josh; she has friends, a career, and insecurities all her own. The show essentially rebooted itself by adding Lucy, but without losing any of the whimsy or momentum—Man Seeking Woman now offers as much character development as absurdity.
Findlay deserves a lot of credit for making Lucy well-rounded and likable, but series regular Britt Lower has been making inroads for her from the beginning. Lower plays Josh’s sister, Liz, a beautiful, ambitious lawyer who takes over the show one (amazing) episode a season. The switch to Woman Seeking Man began with “Teacup” and “Tinsel,” two Liz-centric episodes that revealed her desires and fears. Just like Findlay, Lower does more than simply offer a female perspective on modern romance; she’s created a multidimensional character, with her own quirks and ambitions. Although Liz was part of a happy couple in season one, she’s now single (but never lonely). Her focus just happens to be on her career, which pays off with a promotion to partner in the latest episode, “Dolphin.”
There’s an increasing (and heartening) number of high-powered women on TV—see: Scandal, Madam Secretary, and The Good Fight—so Liz’s drive isn’t revolutionary. Those characters tend to feature on dramas, but the women who are leading comedies aren’t slouches, either. One Day At A Time’s Penelope (Justina Machado) and Insecure’s Issa (Issa Rae) strive for professional development, which is just as important as their home lives. These women can have it all, and they do, even if they have to do some juggling. There’s no question that they deserve a shot at it, either, which is an attitude that extends to Liz on Man Seeking Woman. Obviously, the character comes from a more privileged background, but she’s also highly competent, which makes her the opposite of most of the men around her. Well, every guy except her father, Joel, whom we finally meet in “Dolphin.”
Played by Peter Gallagher, Joel’s a detached silver fox with a penchant for the finer things in life, a trait that Liz inherited. When Liz reunites with her dad, she thinks they’re kindred spirits—not only does he also turn his nose up at bad wine and art, but he also hit the same career milestone at the same age. So Joel doesn’t need any prodding to be excited about Liz’s accomplishment—she’s a partner at the age of 31, the youngest in her firm’s history. It’s a big deal, but when she tries to share her big news with her mom, Patti (Robin Duke), and her stepfather, Tom (Mark McKinney), they blow her off to tag along with Josh and Lucy as they make wedding plans.
Liz is hurt, and rightly so. If a wedding is the only thing that rates with her mom and stepdad, they won’t be celebrating for a while. But her single status—which is both incidental and intentional—is never seen as pathetic. She doesn’t bemoan the lack of dates, but we also see that her libido is alive and well, say, when she hooks up with Santa Claus in season two. And none of her family members despair of Liz’s unattached state. She’s not subjected to awkward questioning about her love life during family gatherings. Liz is just different from Patti; no better, no worse.
That a mother and daughter could respect their differences is a simple concept, though one that plays out in absurd sequences, including a Matrix homage wherein Liz is the Neo to Joel’s Morpheus. But even though she’s thrilled by her dad’s excitement, she’s not eager to be dismissive of her mother’s choices. Patti appears to have been a stay-at-home mom who found someone more compatible after her divorce from Joel; this makes Joel shudder in disgust, but Liz ultimately sees that her mother just made a different choice based on different desires. Patti wanted a family, while Liz wants a career. There’s no judgment from either character, nor the episode’s writer, Stefani Robinson. Liz does briefly go to the dark side when she shares in her father’s snobbishness, but she realizes that all that reflexive rejecting isn’t her style either. It’s not exactly a change of heart, because we never completely lose Liz, but it is enough to get her to go to Pasta Buongiornio, an Italian restaurant located in a strip mall that serves yak piss.
Even though it doesn’t come from the same place, Liz wants her mother’s approval, too. That’s how Lower says she feels about the episode. The actress previously teased this new piece of the Liz puzzle, in addition to expressing pride in the many layers her character has been given despite having limited screen time. Lower knows Liz well and describes her as “very courageous and ambitious.” But having said that, she appreciates that Liz isn’t made to choose between family and work, or love and work:
It’s a really exciting storyline. This episode isn’t about pursuing affection from a man in a sexual sense. But it is the pursuit of love of one’s family, of validation from parents—of validation of oneself. It’s a more internal journey than the typical episode. And I feel really proud and excited to get to play Liz and get to know her as she’s getting to know herself. You just don’t very often see a storyline about a woman who’s in love with her career, and it’s exciting to explore that.
I’ve been struck by that same notion while watching Liz, Lucy, and even Patti throughout the show. Lucy’s had to deal with her parents’ disappointment over her career choice, and her boyfriend’s brief resentment over her success. These are issues that were dealt with in ways that are surprisingly mature for a show that’s also featured a painting of its lead actor blowing various animals. Liz is more driven than her contemporaries, though, a quality that’s held up as admirable by the show’s writers and directors. There’s no binary here, no either/or. Liz’s ambition is rightly celebrated, but without denigrating her mom’s choice to look after her kids. That mutual respect is shared behind the scenes, as Lower effuses over her costars Findlay and Duke, saying they bring “a depth and sensitivity to these broad premises.”
But let’s not forget that Patti is the one who raised Liz (with some help from Tom, of course), so she had a hand in Liz’s success. Even if this particular partnership isn’t the one Patti was looking for, she sent Liz down that path by being there for her during her formative years, instead of sneering and downing single-malt scotch at her “club,” like Joel. Women’s choices are respected in “Dolphin,” whether it’s marriage, career, or a buttered-bread bonanza.
They’ve also come to the forefront of Man Seeking Woman. While some fans might be concerned that the series has given up on its original hunt by finding the right person for Josh, that’s not necessarily a done deal yet. (Just forget about the “man seeking woman” part of Man Seeking Woman for now—it’s not like Zooey Deschanel’s been “the new girl” for the entirety of New Girl.) “Woman” has always been right there in the title, leaving room for Lucy to show up and wow us. But even before Josh found his better half, Liz was showing up for the greater half of the population. And Lower’s proud to represent the ambitious women of the world, especially when her real-life counterparts have been dinged for it. Man Seeking Woman is full of surreal moments, but its consideration for women’s ambition offers one of its most compelling fantasies.