Man Seeking Woman starts simply enough: In one of the least eventful or fraught television breakups in a while, Josh Greenberg (Jay Baruchel) shakes the hand of his now ex-girlfriend of four years, Maggie (Maya Erskine), and leaves her apartment carrying his belongings and his pet lizard, Isaac Newton. Josh is clearly the harder hit of the two, but he puts on a brave face until the series betrays his mood by introducing its first touch of fantasy, a The Truman Show-style individual rain storm that beats down on Josh and sends pigeons to their doom. Using flights of fancy or daydreams to express a character’s emotional state is not a particularly new idea, but what sets this series apart is its commitment to the concept, expanding it beyond one creative protagonist’s imagination to create a full world of walking, talking metaphors.

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Anyone who’s been on enough blind dates can relate to Josh’s experience being set up by his sister with a troll. Anyone who’s bitterly watched an ex move on knows Josh’s pain at watching Maggie cavort with Adolf Hitler, and anyone who has put themselves out there expecting rejection knows the elation of actually hearing, “Oh, sure.” This pilot has its flaws, but its whimsical tone and creativity more than make up for most of them. The opening’s rain storm may effectively tease what’s to come, but it’s Josh’s dinner with Gorbachaka that announces the show’s full intentions.

The initial introduction of Gorbachaka is concerning, particularly after the amount of time given to Eric André’s less than evolved Mike. This trepidation transforms to glee when it’s revealed Gorbachaka isn’t a representation of how Josh is viewing a likely perfectly lovely woman, but that Liz has set Josh up with an honest-to-God, lives-under-a-bridge troll. Her assertion they’ll be good together and delight at describing their date to a third party is key to the scene’s success, as are the restaurant patrons’ stunned reactions to Josh’s behavior. The date isn’t terrible because Josh is out with a troll, it’s terrible because he’s apparently out with a troll who can run a non-profit but won’t contribute to the conversation at all and who overreacts to Josh’s poor word choice and physically attacks him as the restaurant patrons continue to eat, unconcerned.

The highlight of the episode, however, is the sequence at Maggie’s party, where Josh discovers she’s started dating Hitler. As with the troll sequence, the details and committed performances are what sell the scene. Bill Hader is fantastic as Hitler and his delivery of “Uh-oh! There’s a Jew at Hitler’s party!” makes it a strong contender for best line of the episode, but it’s Erskine’s deadpan delivery throughout that brings everything together. The absurdity of lines like, “My relationship with Dolphy has nothing to do with you,” never gets old and Josh’s growing disbelief and rage feels utterly justified and relatable.

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With these two sequences, Man Seeking Woman tries its hand at adapting one of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s founding ideas. High school, Buffy argued, feels like hell to many teenagers. Rather than try to express that idea in words, why not give teens’ common anxieties and fears life and breath, monsters that can be slayed and cathartically overcome? In “Lizard,” creator Simon Rich argues that dating can be hell and when your ex has moved on and you haven’t, their new love may as well be Hitler. Fortunately, not all of Rich’s fantasy sequences are dour ones, as Josh’s walk home from the train indicates. While it’s likely this concept of personified fears and joys will be the only connection between the two series, it’s nice to see another show playing in this sandbox.

Where the pilot is lacking is in its characters. Despite an entertaining performance from Baruchel, Josh is a blank slate, passive and forgettable. There’s no indication given of why Maggie and Josh broke up (though Josh creepily counting their four years as six because of some emails likely didn’t help) and by the end of the episode, all that’s been revealed about him is that he works as a poorly-paid temp, misses his ex-girlfriend, and really would like to finish watching Carnivale. The other characters don’t fare much better. Liz is domineering and oblivious. Mike is the latest in a long line of one-dimensional oafish sitcom best friends. Maggie could become an interesting figure, but with no background on her and Josh’s relationship, that will take some doing.

A title like Man Seeking Woman implies the series will follow a Ted Mosby-like figure, a man looking for love and connection. Josh feels lonely, but he’s so defined by his fixation on Maggie that no other traits come through. Is he actually looking for love, or does he just not want to be alone? The pilot is also incredibly male-focused and hopefully, this will change over the course of the season. There is tremendous potential in the series’ premise and world, and it would be a shame for the show to only explore the heterosexual male perspective on dating. On the whole, however, “Lizard” is a strong pilot with a distinct and creative approach to a familiar story.

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Stray observations:

  • Lower’s fabulous delivery of, “She moved here last year so she could run her non-profit and live underneath the Wabash bridge” tentatively got me on board.
  • Erskine’s delivery of “He’s 126- I can’t believe I’m defending myself to you” confirmed it.
  • Maggie and Hitler’s tongue-touching is appropriately shudder-inducing.
  • “Dinner’s a bigger deal because it’s at night.”
  • Good on Josh for getting Laura’s number, but man is that an awkward train ride. I’d love to see the flight of fancy or dread that accompanied Laura’s walk from the train.

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