You’ve encountered Man Seeking Woman’s premise maybe a hundred times before. Twentysomething screwup Josh (Jay Baruchel) has been dumped by his long-term girlfriend. He then awkwardly re-enters single life, both inspired and confused by advice from his wacky troupe of friends, and proceeds to experience all the confusing mishaps of modern dating. Creator Simon Rich (a wunderkind humorist who's published six books and worked on Saturday Night Live for four years) has taken the traditional folk tale of the sensitive white dude and given it an absurd spin: In Wednesday’s pilot episode, Josh goes on a blind date without asking what the woman looks like and is confronted by a garbage-eating troll who gnaws at his ankles. Later, he realizes his girlfriend is happily dating someone new: the still-kicking Adolf Hitler (Bill Hader), now age 126.
It’s a cute concept that hasn’t been tried much: holding up a funhouse mirror to the nightmare of single life. The laughs come as much from the tricky social dynamics as the initial sight gags—Josh wants to be sensitive about the monstrous troll, inquiring after some shared interests. His motivations aren't compassionate; he’s scared of looking rude, which he inevitably does, getting tuts from onlookers for expressing disgust. His disdain for Hitler is dismissed as jealousy by friends, who remind him he’s not over his ex.
Man Seeking Woman has a melancholic streak, and Baruchel gives his beleaguered straight man some depth, but the show’s self-aware enough to skirt coming across as the ballad of the lonely nerd who's not confident enough with women. Rich leans heavily into the absurd at every point to keep the sketch/sitcom hybrid from ever feeling too realistic. Later in the pilot episode, Josh gets a phone number from a cute girl on the subway (Vanessa Bayer); shortly thereafter, he’s awarded a MacArthur genius grant and gets a call from the President for his great success. His low expectations are here to be mocked.
Man Seeking Woman’s biggest problem is the classic sketch comedy stumbling block—if you’re not into a certain gag, too bad, cause you’re stuck with it. There are really only three big sketches per episode, each six or seven minutes long, and while some are hits, others feel interminable. One gag in the second episode where a panel of experts descend on a war room to help Josh craft a text is terrifically done; but there’s also a fairly dull routine where he's obliged to exorcise his apartment of his ex-girlfriend’s things with the help of a Catholic priest barking in Latin.
That sketch, and a few others in the first three episodes FXX sent out to critics, doesn’t find enough amusing detail in its premise to really get going, but that’s a problem that can be solved in time—great sketch shows currently on the air like Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer have only gotten better as they’ve gotten more experimental. But they’re traditional, non-narrative sketch shows with some recurring characters, while Man Seeking Woman has a real story to tell.
Rich can do wonderful things taking a story to strange extremes without ever losing the narrative—his much-shared 2013 New Yorker piece “Guy Walks Into a Bar” is a perfect example, giving its characters heart and soul in under 1,000 words. On this show, he wisely collaborated with director Jonathan Krisel, who came up working with comedians Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim and is responsible for the visual feel of Portlandia and Kroll Show, two sketch shows that succeed partly because of their attention to detail. Both are decent examples of a sketch/narrative hybrid that works: Portlandia is more traditional, but often has the most fun dipping into its ongoing storylines, like the trials and tribulations of its mayor (Kyle McLachlan). Kroll Show started out as a reality television spoof but jumped to the next level by weaving all of its disparate storylines together into one bonkers universe; its third season promises to wrap everything up with a bang.
Krisel has given Man Seeking Woman the moody look of an indie comedy, and does well having its most absurd moments blend into that look without feeling flat. Josh’s troll companion is a fantastic little creature suit, but its details are subtly embellished enough to avoid from distracting: She really does feel like she just walked out of the nearest city dumpster and threw on a dress. That said, the visual seamlessness is a nice accomplishment, but to what end? There isn't enough dimensionality to really care about Josh, and the characters surrounding him (like Eric Andre’s horny bro pal) are archetypes, nothing more.
There’s enough promise to retain viewer interest for a few more episodes, and Rich is promising that the show’s scope will evolve beyond its limited title. In an interview with Vulture, he said “The show is called Man Seeking Woman, so it tends to center more, at least initially, on a male perspective of dating. But it shifts pretty dramatically as the season progresses. I don’t want to give too much away, but I think if you watch all ten episodes, you’ll be surprised by how female-centered the show ends up being.”
If he’s right, that’s something to hold out for, because there are only so many absurd gags about hitting on women a person can watch week in and week out. Man Seeking Woman has the potential to grow, but it’ll get there either by broadening its scope or sympathizing more with its characters. It’s the rare sketch/narrative hybrid that can do both without sacrificing laughs.