There’s always a sneaking sensation that goes into every year-end TV list: What show am I leaving off? (OK, there’s also the second sneaking sensation of, “Why am I bothering to do this in the first place?”, but let’s deal with the other one for now.) I’m a pretty firm believer that shows that don’t instantly pop to mind shouldn’t be initially excluded from further self-evaluation. But after a secondary round of analysis, those shows left off the list are probably left off for a reason.
Still, it stung a bit when it came time to watch a new batch of “Man Seeking Woman” episodes. After all, I really did like the first season, and wondered for a second if this was the big miss from my published list. Then I remembered that while the first season had some incredible highs (Michael Hogan screaming “Text JK!” might be the hardest I laughed at anything in 2015), it also was plagued with the inconsistencies inherent in a show this freakin’ weird. And make no doubt about it: This show is damn, damn weird. Peak TV gives space to weird shows like this (not enough variety of weird at present moment, in that it all seems to stem from underground comedy based out of NYC and LA, but it’s a start), and FXX is a place where ratings probably don’t matter so long as there are at least larger cultural conversations happening around the programs. (See “Worst, You’re The”.)
But part of why I forgot about this show was that it didn’t really have much in the way of conversations about it. It’s a program that constantly baffled people as to its very existence, and when I described a typical episode, many assumed I was just having fun at their expense. Because a show about the protagonist Josh’s ex dating the very not-dead Hitler, literally conjoining himself to another woman that he subsequently dates, or attending a destination wedding in Hell sounds insane. At the very least, it sounds like a series of sketches rather than full half-hour episodes. And since creator Simon Rich has a background as a writer for “Saturday Night Live,” it’s tempting to look at certain scenarios as five-minute concepts stretched out and given a (at times only slightly) bigger budget.
But that sells sort what Rich and company have fashioned here. Yes, it has the trappings of absurdism, and sometimes is as unsubtle as a sledgehammer to the groin with its comedic conceits. And yet, few shows on the air do as good a job at visualizing what it’s like to place yourself at the center of a universe that in fact could not give less of a shit about you. As in season one, “Man Seeking Woman” excels in taking things from Normal to Crazy Town with alarming speed. It’s not that the characters in the world are oblivious to the escalation of stakes: It’s just that they aren’t nearly alarmed by events as they should be. This allows for a natural story progression involving setup, confrontation, and resolution to give shape to every installment. But holy shit, you guys: The execution of these three basic building blocks like little else you’ve seen.
Part of the joy of watching this often painfully awkward show (which returns January 6, paired with the perennial “It’s Always Sunny In Philadephia”) comes from the writers’ ability to mine the absurdity of language and literalize it inside a visual spectrum. One character’s comment that his friend should been seen as a viable “candidate” for boyfriend turns into a political maelstrom involving reporters and cable outlets. A fear over balding manifests itself into a visit from the Grim Reaper. An obsessive relationship sparks a union of friends and family who protest outside of an apartment. The show can turn on a dime into whatever reality it wants because it’s rooted in a shared, collective language of pop culture tropes and a world in which they can manifest themselves based on the emotions of its inhabitants.
Indeed, all of these episodes are over-the-top stagings of very real feelings, and that’s how “Man Seeking Woman” goes from mere comic conceits into some really interesting mediations on loss, grief, and overall feelings of inadequacy. Yes, you could argue this is the ultimate Millennial Show, with its navel-gazing hero barely able to conceive of a world that doesn’t revolve directly around him. But I’m 40, and know plenty of people my age who are just as narcissistic and unable to sympathize, nevermind empathize, with the pain and plights of those around them. So sure, it’s really weird to see Josh dating a used car in one episode. But that scenario comes from a deep-seated fear that humanizes him just enough to make you invest in his plight. We know Josh won’t learn anything (otherwise, the show would be over), but at its best, “Man Seeking Woman” makes us wish he could learn just a little.
Giving away more of the show’s conceits would be to ruin one of the show’s chief pleasures. I wish I could say why the end of the show’s sixth episode moved me so much, but as with the best parts of this show, it’s best to experience it rather than read about it. Nothing about this program makes sense unless you’ve seen it. So in some ways, any review such as this might ultimately be pointless. If you take away anything here, it’s that “Man Seeking Woman” is worth seeking out. It may not be your cup of tea. But you’ll know within an episode or not whether it is, and if so, it’s a mighty unique brew to keep you warm in the winter months.