Man Seeking Woman, which debuts tonight at 10:30 on the elusive FXX, is one of the most relentlessly strange shows I’ve ever seen. Every odd idea is taken to its bizarre extreme: Our hero goes on a first date with an actual troll, and is so tense about sending text messages to women that he winds up in the situation room at the Center for Important Emergencies. Sex aliens (“from Planet Sex”) come after him only when he has a serious girlfriend. His ex’s new boyfriend is the literal Adolf Hitler. An actual priest has to perform an exorcism on the apartment to get rid of all the remnants of said ex-girlfriend, which include a pink razor that inches across the floor like a slug. The priest eventually chants in Latin while spritzing a pink bra with holy water until smoke bubbles out of it. The show’s passionate aberrance can be charming and sweet, menacing and creepy, sometimes enchanting and sometimes deeply off-putting. Do not watch this show high.
MSW stars Jay Baruchel as Josh, a dweeby dude looking for love. Baruchel has made a career of playing lovable Eeyores and scrawny sweethearts whose nerves get the better of them, and here, his Josh is all T. rex head-forward hunchy posture and paralyzing awkwardness and twangy Canadian “sore-y”s. He’s flanked by a far cooler best friend, Mike (Eric Andre, whose eponymous show is its own entrancing kind of strange), and his sister (Britt Lower), though he remains very lovelorn. But he’s single at least sometimes because he cheats on girlfriends and is unpleasant to be around, so my sympathies lie elsewhere. Anxiety is a prison you don’t have to live in, Josh! Love is not the cure, but rather therapy.
Simon Rich created the series based on his anthology The Last Girlfriend on Earth, and the show similarly mines a mind-altering pathos from ordinary situations. (Rich’s father is New York Magazine’s Frank Rich.) As in the autobiography of a lonely condom or “Guy Walks Into a Bar,” the characters on MSW, particularly Josh, regard themselves as deeply unspecial, yet articulate their anxieties and neuroses so thoroughly they must in some ways consider themselves the stars of their own show. In small doses, this tension can be endearing, but episode after episode, with the same characters and the same schtick, it gets tedious. I’m happy to watch shows about main characters I dislike, but MSW seems to be saying, “Oh, isn’t Josh so immature? Doesn’t he just drive you crazy? … But secretly, don’t you like him?”
I’m dazzled by Man Seeking Woman’s willingness to follow its ideas, to burrow into its surrealism the way a cat makes a hiding spot in a leather boot. But it comes at a time when my appetite for stories about sad white dudes and their quests for love — quests that always seem to hinge on “what’s the deal with women????” — is at an all-time low. It is by far the most interesting entry into that genre in a long time, but it is not a genre I’m dying to see more of, nor is MSW’s attitude new in any way. The three episodes FXX made available for review suffer from a raging case of Nice-Guy-itis: When will some understanding woman — instead of these awful trolls — finally see all Josh has to give? Maybe when he stops being such a listless herb.
And yet as exhausting as I found some aspects of the show, the series’ imagination largely won me over. It made me curious about future episodes, about FXX’s willingness to air very niche shows, about the rise of whimsy-comedy on cable. I want Eric Andre to be on every show. But I wish Man Seeking Woman could give even a tenth as much energy to depicting Josh’s conquests as individuals as it did to explaining what Hitler sang at karaoke, which, according to the first episode, was “a monologue from Precious, which wasn’t even in the karaoke book. He just had it memorized.” That’s a pretty good line. More like that, please.