I will say this for FXX's new comedy “Man Seeking Woman”: It commits to a bit – for good and for ill.
In the show, which debuts tonight at 10:30 (after the very funny 10th season premiere of “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), Jay Baruchel plays Josh, a young guy just dumped by his long-term girlfriend Maggie (Maya Erskine) and struggling to jump back into the dating pool. To help him along, his sister Liz (Britt Lower) sets him up on a blind date, only the woman is a troll.
Literally. An actual, monstrous, garbage-eating, non-verbal troll.
And it's not like this is a whimsical fantasy where Josh briefly imagines his blind date in troll form. No, it turns out that in the very elastic universe in which “Man Seeking Woman” takes place, trolls are real – and aliens, and other impossible characters and creatures. When Josh learns that Maggie has already moved on and is dating Hitler, this doesn't mean she's dating an awful person, but the actual Adolf Hitler (played by an unrecognizable Bill Hader), somehow still alive in 2015.
Nor are these quick cutaway gags. The troll date lasts a very long and uncomfortable time, as does Josh's encounter with Hitler at a party of Maggie's. The show, created by Simon Rich (adapting short stories from his book “The Last Girlfriend on Earth”) is essentially a series of sketches about Josh's return to the dating world, with each sketch running until Rich has exhausted every possible joke he can think of from this fantastical situation.
On the one hand, that level of commitment is admirable, and when one of the sketches works – like a sequence in the second episode where Josh winds up in a military command center where the generals (including Michael Hogan from “Battlestar Galactica”) nervously monitor the results of a text he sent to a girl he met on the L(*), or a running gag in the third episode where Josh keeps winding up in court on charges of boyfriend misconduct – it can be explosively funny.
(*) The series is set in Chicago, but filmed in Toronto, and looks it – with actors like Hogan, Mark McKinney, Robin Duke and Baruchel himself making the show feel even more Canadian than “Wheels Ontario.”
On the other, when a sketch doesn't work, it really doesn't work, and then you're trapped in an idea that's not only gone wrong, but keeps going wrong until you will feel trapped in misery right along with Josh. The troll and Hitler sequences, for instance, made me very wary of continuing with the show at all, and if the texting scene hadn't happened relatively early in the second episode, I might have just moved on to something else. And while the courtroom gag features perhaps the best use of Baruchel – a game and versatile performer whose innate vulnerability makes Josh the easy butt of most of the show's jokes – that episode's other two sketches mostly fall flat.
Comedy in general is more subjective than drama, and based on anecdotal evidence, “Man Seeking Woman” may be more subjective than most. In discussions with other TV critics on Twitter and here at press tour, I've found the only sketch that seems to be universally liked is the texting one, with some, for instance, loving the troll and Hitler scenes but feeling exhausted by the time they got to the courtroom. The consensus, in other words, is that this is a wildly uneven show, capable of big laughs but also of going badly awry, even if everyone's line between the two will be drawn differently.
That I found it improving as it went along is a positive sign – in addition to being more subjective, comedy is simply a harder thing to get right at the start, with many of TV's greatest comedies past and present needing a half-season or more to fully come into their own. I liked enough of “Man Seeking Woman” to stick around and see what other crazy ideas Rich has for Josh. But I'm also prepared to spend long stretches of episodes watching through my fingers like it's a horror movie.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org