On last night’s episode of Man Seeking Woman — FXX’s relentlessly bizarre, genre-bending rom-com, now in its third season — some neighborhood kids accidentally hit their baseball into the yard of our central couple, Josh (Jay Baruchel) and Lucy (Katie Findlay). When the batter offers to go retrieve it, his teammate offers an ominous warning. “Nobody hops that fence — that’s Josh and Lucy’s place.” The others chime in: “Legend has it that they used to be a cool fun couple who went out all the time … then they passed the one-year mark — just totally gave up.” “Now they never leave the house … never ever ever ever.” “All they ever do is binge-watch shows.” “I heard they watched Making a Murderer twice.” It’s a quintessential Man Seeking Woman premise: a commonplace relationship milestone (a long-term relationship in a rut) explored through an absurdly high-concept framing device (a parody of the 1993 coming-of-age baseball classic The Sandlot).
Based on a short-story collection by Simon Rich, Man Seeking Woman originally starred Seth Rogen squad-member Jay Baruchel as Josh Greenberg, a misfit 20-something navigating the dating world in Chicago *. The idea was to take commonplace scenarios of modern romance — online dating, ghosting, hookup culture — and blow them out to their most hyperbolic and ridiculous extremes. We’ve all had bad blind dates: Josh ends up on a blind date with an actual troll who lives under a bridge. We’ve all lived through the horror of meeting our ex’s new partner: Josh’s ex-girlfriend is literally dating Adolf Hitler, who is now 125 years old and rides around in a motorized wheelchair. But while the show was always inventive, I grew tired of seeing every minefield in the dating landscape through Josh’s sad-boy point of view (or, as Margaret Lyons accurately described it, his case of “Sad-White-Guy-itis”).
This season, the creators decided to do something different: They paired Josh up with a female partner, Lucy (The Killing’s Katie Findlay), and began chronicling their relationship in its entirety, from first date to wedding day. In shifting focus from “Man Seeking Woman” to “Man and Woman Finding Each Other,” this oddball comedy has quietly become one of TV’s most essential shows about what it feels like to be in a relationship.
Right out of the gate, Lucy — a refreshing burst of oddball energy opposite Josh’s low-energy dopiness — became the co-lead, with about half of the show’s vignettes taking place from her perspective. (Like Baruchel, Findlay does an impressive job of grounding the show’s more fantastical moments; as in prior seasons, scenes are played for emotional realism, no matter how outlandish the premise.) And by showing how two different people conceptualize the same relationship — and not just a generic man and woman, but distinct comic characters — Man Seeking Woman has unseated The Affair as TV’s best relationship-Rashomon.
Through an array of high-wire metaphors, we get to see how an easy social situation for one person can feel like a nightmare for another, and to explore the strange new norms and customs that develop when two separate people choose to meld their lives together. Sometimes Lucy is the protagonist, other times Josh is. Sometimes Mike (Josh’s best friend, played by Eric Andre) is an ally; other times, he’s a terrible threat. Sometimes we see our central couple unite against a common obstacle, Josh and Lucy vs. The World; at other times, they themselves are the antagonists, their boring relationship a specter that haunts the nightmares of neighborhood children.
Perhaps my favorite episode from this season is called “Popcorn,” a 21-minute tour-de-force. The episode begins like a horror movie, with Josh and Lucy traveling to visit Lucy’s parents in her childhood home. While Josh thinks her parents are delightful, Lucy finds herself in a haunted house, tormented by ongoing “passive-aggressive” activity. (“My mom was just up in that window giving me a disapproving look!” “Oh, it’s probably just a trick of the light.”) As the spooky events pile up and Josh continues to side with her parents, we segue into in a black-and-white historical satire of the Army–McCarthy hearings, with the “House Un-Lucy Activities Commission” investigating Josh as a “parent sympathizer.” In the final third, the episode becomes a magical coming-of-age tale: Lucy climbs through a tunnel in the attic and enters a childhood fantasy world, where a trio of Where the Wild Things Are--esque creatures from her youth — now themselves riddled with middle-aged anxiety — help her realize that everyone has to grow up eventually. The episode becomes a remarkably complicated (and genuine) emotional journey, and it concludes with Josh and Lucy saying “I love you” for the first time.
Man Seeking Woman intuitively grasps the high-drama narrative stakes felt by people falling in love, and the show’s genre flirtations are great at conveying the way that experience feels. The show beautifully captures how two people in a relationship construct an imaginative world together, becoming the heroes of a private mythology. In a new relationship, mundane activities can take on an epic dimension: For instance, the site of your first date might turn into a sacred space, a landmark in your mental map of the world. Conversely, simple social interactions can become existential threats to your shared harmony, like when Josh is forced to go out to an expensive shared-plate restaurant with Lucy’s co-workers and things quickly spiral into disaster-movie territory (the most cringe-worthy bill-splitting scene since Curb Your Enthusiasm).
In the second half of last night’s episode, Lucy decides to go out with friends in order to escape her relationship rut with Josh. One thing leads to another, and she ends up in a flirtation with a handsome stranger named Owen Quest, “a gentleman adventurer who deals in supernatural antiquities” and who says things like “I don’t have Venmo; here, take this, it’s a stone totem from the Incan empire.” (Meanwhile, Josh is at home watching a 14-hour Ken Burns documentary about shoes.) Their dalliance dramatizes the fantasy of singledom as imagined by someone in a comfortable relationship — how a handsome stranger at a bar can conjure up all the mystery and romance of a storybook hero. This is the show’s brilliance: the way its surreal premises actually work to illuminate real emotional truths. When Lucy finally decides that a life of swashbuckling isn’t for her — to go back to Josh and find adventure in their life instead of seeking it elsewhere — it’s a victory that feels earned, because we understand the stakes, and because we’re genuinely invested in these two people and the bizarro world they’ve built together.