Looking for love, surreally
In episode two of the culty new FXX comedy “Man Seeking Woman,” our twentysomething everyman, Josh Greenberg (Jay Baruchel), is sitting at a giant roundtable in a high-tech war room at the “Center for Important Emergencies,” surrounded by data analysts and generals. It’s a scene out of “24” or “Homeland,” with tensions running red hot and arguments flaring as they all try to determine the most effective plan of action. What, exactly, should Josh text to the woman he just met on a subway train?
“I would deploy an emoji,” shouts one military guy.
But, argues a nerdy analyst, “Women are going nuts for punctuation.”
A third expert, Josh’s player friend Mike (Eric Andre), stands and makes a rousing plea, ultimately inspiring tears and applause from all those gathered. Josh, he feels, needs to send her a snapshot of his penis with the message, “Guess who?”
It’s one of many surreal sequences in “Man Seeking Woman,” which premieres on Wednesday night at 10:30 after the return of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” In the first episode, a similarly absurdist detour has Josh, who was recently dumped by his girlfriend, out on a blind date with a troll — literally a troll who lives under a bridge, whom he first sees emerging from a dumpster. (Her name, by the way, is Gorbachacka.) And these sequences aren’t the wacko hyperactive flashes that shows such as “Scrubs” have used; these are long, elaborate fantasies and nightmares with, for instance, Josh having full-length interactions with a wheelchair-bound 126-year-old Adolf Hitler (Bill Hader), who happens to be dating Josh’s ex.
It’s as if director David Cronenberg underwent a dark night of the soul — or a darker night than usual — and decided to leave the world of film to make a TV sitcom. “Man Seeking Woman” has a Cronenbergian sense of internal psychological journey tethered to externalized hallucinations, the quality that was most vivid in Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch.” We see metaphors become literal, as Josh’s anxiety-induced projections — his ex’s new boyfriend is Hitler, any date other than his ex-girlfriend is a troll, his confusion over how to text a woman is a national crisis — become his realities. His subjective transforms into the objective. FX’s “Wilfred,” about a man who saw a dog as a man in a dog suit, traded on some of the same psychoactive features.
If you haven’t figured this out yet, “Man Seeking Woman” is plenty weird. But it’s also wild, wily, and, depending on your taste for high-risk jokes that don’t always fly, wonderful. It’s unlike almost anything else on TV, which is doubly satisfying because the subject matter — single people negotiating the world of dating — is so common these days. Created by former “Saturday Night Live” writer Simon Rich from his story collection “The Last Girl on Earth,” and co-executive produced by Lorne Michaels, the show admirably commits to its experimental approach. It’s a bit of a tightrope walk, and occasionally one of the bits falls flat, but the thrill of the gamble is infectious.
Baruchel, who is often identified with Judd Apatow projects (notably as star of Apatow’s short-lived series “Undeclared”) is just right as the guy at the center of all of these living, breathing conceits. He’s not a frat-house bro type, like Andre’s Mike; he’s a sweetheart who just wants a girlfriend to love. He’s sympathetic, frustrating only in the way he is so naively attached to the woman who used him up and dumped him. As he undergoes the embarrassments and bruises of romance, you root for him, hoping that he’ll find the right girl to hang out with, that someday he’ll only be dealing with visions of celebration and happiness.