In the pilot for Man Seeking Woman, Joshua Greenberg (Jay Baruchel) finds himself at the end of a long-term relationship and returns to the dating pool, quite literally, with an “ugly, slimy troll.” Josh’s accomplished older sister, Liz (Britt Lower), sets him up with Gorbachaka (Raeanna Guitard), a pustular brown creature who’s first seen slurping antifreeze from a dumpster across the street, and their meeting, as one might expect, goes poorly. The question that lingers long after Gorbachaka crawls back under the bridge from whence she came, however, is whether FXX’s new comedy, as Pauline Kael wrote in “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” is the “vacation from proper behavior and good taste and required responses” it promises to be. Part surreal invention and part frat-house juvenilia, the series is that rare species of Hollywood entertainment: the unknown quantity.
It’s also, in stretches, uproarious, transforming the timeworn conventions of the sitcom romance into parodic fantasies that manage to lampoon both the witlessness of lowest-common-denominator schlock and the critical bona fides of cable “comedies” that aren’t all that funny. In the best of these, Josh, his sister, and his best friend, Mike (Eric Andre), join generals and data analysts in a high-tech bunker to determine what he should text Laura (Vanessa Bayer), whom he meets on the subway near the end of the first episode. The ensuing debate over dick pics, emojis, and punctuation is as absurd as Dr. Strangelove’s “There’s no fighting in the war room!,” but the sequence is also a clever exaggeration of the very real neuroses that accompany dating in the 21st century. Man Seeking Woman recognizes that we all tend to treat a string of anodyne words as though we’re at DEFCON 3 when the possibility of sex is involved, and the series has the gumption to take this notion to its illogical conclusion.
What’s both maddening and admirably risky about the series, created by Simon Rich from his collection of short stories, The Last Girlfriend on Earth, is this reliance on the structure of sketch comedy. Each episode is built on two or three extended gags, some of which are bound to be duds, and enduring the inane slapstick of Josh’s date with Gorbachaka or the tiresome exorcism that opens the second episode is a chore out of sync with Man Seeking Woman’s freewheeling style. In the latter, the detritus of Josh’s former relationship with Maggie (Maya Erskine) comes to life, a crawling army of pink razors and tampons that Mike hires an Italian priest to defeat, culminating in a cry of, “You musta sex new woman!” The problem is that the scene, like a later interlude featuring a marriage-as-prison conceit, pitches itself as a novelty when monogamy and feminine hygiene products have terrorized the overgrown adolescents of film and television since time immemorial, a slippage into the familiar bro patois that Man Seeking Woman leans on all too heavily when the narrative stalls.
This may be a function of the inconsistent scenes that bridge the gap between set pieces, uncomfortably treading the line between realism and farce. While Andre uses Mike’s cocky persona to send up the hideous excesses of players and pick-up artists, delivering the words “You will crush gash” with the terrifying certainty of dudes who read The Game, Barcuchel, Erskine, and Lower are left mainly to facilitate comic cameos by the likes of Bayer and Bill Hader, unrecognizable as a 126-year-old Adolf Hitler. Nevertheless, Man Seeking Woman possesses a devil-may-care creativity that marks it as a series to follow even as it occasionally stumbles. At its best, it turns the ritual humiliations of modern romance into a hilarious pop-culture pastiche, refreshing for its willingness to go for the hard laugh even if the result is a resounding thud. “I’m not the one you should apologize to,” Josh hears repeatedly in the pilot, but the merit of Man Seeking Woman is just the opposite: It makes no apologies whatsoever, and for that one can forgive its flaws.