FXX's Man Seeking Woman has always been a comedy with a very elastic sense of reality. When Jay Baruchel's Josh fears that his girlfriend's platonic guy friend is a threat to their relationship, the guy turns out to be a Japanese penis monster. When he needs advice on what kind of text to send someone he met on the train, he convenes a collection of scientists and military leaders. And when his sister Liz (Britt Lower) had an affair with a married man earlier this season, it was with Santa Claus himself.
In the series' first season, that mash-up of romantic comedy tropes and surreal fantasy concepts could make Man Seeking Woman an explosively funny comedy, but also a profoundly uneven one. The design of it, adapted from creator Simon Rich's comic stories about dating, made it less a comedy series than a sketch show with a continuing cast of characters. When an idea hit, it was great. When it didn't, you were trapped in the same joke for 7 or 8 minutes. And either way, there was little cohesion to any of it.
With this second season, though, Rich and company have been trying for something more ambitious in terms of both structure and tone.
Liz's doomed romance with Santa Claus in this season's fourth episode, “Tinsel” – one of the series' periodic Josh-light installments, designed to reduce Baruchel's workload and spotlight the gifted but generally underused supporting actors – was ridiculous throughout, but it was also at times sexy, and at other times incredibly sad. Though there were individual sketch-style segments, the story built and built throughout the half-hour, maximizing the impact of each joke, making the turn into pathos feel earned, and mining every last bit of the idea of Saint Nick as a married man with a wandering eye.
That's been part of a larger approach the series has taken this year, with more serialization both within each episode and across the whole season, in a way that has Man Seeking Woman satisfyingly evoking another pseudo-sketch show in Comedy Central's great Review.
At press tour in January, Rich told critics, “Our number one goal this season was to make the show more narratively propulsive, to make it more dramatic, to make it more character driven, more story driven, while simultaneously keeping it as absurd and surreal as we want it.”
Tonight's penultimate season 2 episode is also largely Josh-free, but it's part of a larger arc about his crush on co-worker Rosa (Rosa Salazar from Parenthood) and the complications that have arisen from Rosa being more interested in his best bro Mike (Eric Andre). Like the Liz-centric episodes, it has fun offering a female perspective on this same crazy convergence of rom-com, sci-fi, and thriller – in an early scene, Rosa's gynecologist suddenly zips herself into a hazmat suit upon learning that Rosa is sleeping with noted STD risk factor Mike – while also letting other actors show they can hop just as easily from genre to genre as Baruchel does. At various points, the episode is a martial arts revenge fantasy, a kidnap-and-ransom drama, and an opportunity for guest star Carrie-Ann Moss to essentially bring her slick lawyer character from Jessica Jones into a sillier context. (Trying to keep Rosa from being labeled a bitch, she promises, “I think I can get the charges reduced from bitch to crazy.”) All the jokes stack on top of each other, and on top of everything else that's happened so far between Josh, Rosa, and Mike.
If Rich had kept Man Seeking Woman a loose collection of weird ideas, I'd have kept watching, because when one of those ideas hits, it's funny enough to make it worth sitting through the misses. But shows can evolve, and good creators – especially ones like Rich without prior narrative series experience (he previously wrote for SNL) – figure out what makes them tick and how to improve them. Man Seeking Woman is always going to have its experiments that don't quite work (an early episode this season about Josh having an affair with a car, for instance), but it's been much sharper and more satisfying overall as it's figured out how to make all these bizarre fantasies from all these disparate genres feel like part of the same cohesive story and series.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org