Transitioning a show about a single man or woman into one about a relationship can be an even tougher adjustment than the one actual singles go through when they pair off. Not only does it alter the structure and tone of the storytelling, not to mention the kinds of stories that can be told, but when we’ve been following only the one character for a long time, our sympathies are almost always going to be with them over the newcomer, no matter how charming they may be.(*)
(*) A rare exception: How I Met Your Mother, which ironically did too good a job when it finally came time to introduce the title character, given that the plan (spoiler) was to kill her off at the end of the finale and have Ted get back together with Robin. Had audiences liked the Mother even slightly less, the finale twist might have inspired a smaller furor.
Leave it to FXX’s always-inventive romantic comedy Man Seeking Woman to come up with a surprisingly elegant solution to this eternal dilemma, by turning over large chunks of the new season (it returns tomorrow night at 10:30) to Lucy, the new girlfriend of Josh (Jay Baruchel), played by Katie Findlay (Rosie Larsen from The Killing). In three of the four (non-sequential) episodes sent to critics, Lucy is in fact so prominent that a newcomer to the show would likely come away from it thinking that she was the main character, and always had been.
Of course, the format and history of Man Seeking Woman lends itself to this kind of bending of perspective. The show, created by Simon Rich, has always been a collection of surreal sketches about modern dating life, where the women Josh is interested in might be in pre-existing relationships with Hitler or Jesus Christ, or Josh’s best friend Mike (Eric Andre) might try to escape having a serious relationship talk with his girlfriend in a sequence that resembles a kung fu movie. And once or twice a season, to reduce the workload on Baruchel — who was otherwise in virtually every minute of every episode — an episode will instead center around another character, like the time Josh’s sister Liz (Britt Lower) dealt with the guilt of dating a married man: Santa Claus.
Still, even with the show’s usual flexibility in mind, it’s startling and impressive how quickly Lucy becomes so central to everything — and how easily Findlay steps into such a prominent role on such a peculiar, funny show.
At various points over these episodes, Findlay ably channels Walter White, Sherlock Holmes, and Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark, to name just a few. And like Baruchel in the show’s best sketches, she manages to still retain some semblance of the regular character she’s playing even while in mid-pastiche. (Her belittling treatment of Dr. Watson in the Holmes bit is a delight.)
This, really, is the only way Man Seeking Woman could have made this work. Josh, and the show, are too strange for him to get involved with a normal woman, and if the show’s going to transition from being about the perils of dating to being about the complications of couplehood, it needs an actor, and character, as elastic as the ones we already know well. Baruchel doesn’t vanish (I’m told other episodes this season are more Josh-centric; this isn’t now Lucy Seeking Man), but we have to spend an awful lot of time with her upfront to appreciate her the way Josh does, and to not object when he’s on the sidelines while she’s plotting a night of clubbing with her girlfriends like they’re the thieves from Ocean’s Eleven.
The sketch comedy structure of the show means it’s always going to be hit-or-miss, and one of the premiere’s first ideas — a metaphor for the contemporary immigration debate, with Lucy’s roommates viewing Josh as an undocumented intruder into their home — doesn’t really land. (Or, perhaps, it’s injecting too much reality into a show that usually has only the loosest of grips on it.) But the quality level as a whole became less uneven last year as the show became a bit more serialized with a story arc about Josh and Mike liking the same woman, and Josh and Lucy’s relationship provides even more focus and infrastructure to the new year. At various points, the season’s fourth episode is a haunted house story, a black-and-white parody of government anti-Communism hearings of the 1950s, and a more adult take on Where the Wild Things Are, but all are neatly tied together by a story about Lucy introducing Josh to her parents, and being annoyed that he doesn’t hate them like she does.
Not every show about single people has to eventually pair them off. (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which returns for its 12th season right before Man Seeking Woman starts its third, has turned the gang’s personal/emotional stasis into a huge source of humor the longer it’s been around.) But Man Seeking Woman seemed destined to provide an answer for its title sooner or later. Based on what I’ve seen so far, it’s an excellent match.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org