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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Man Seeking Woman negotiates friendship and identity in strong premiere

Illustration for article titled Man Seeking Woman negotiates friendship and identity in strong premiere

It appears the world has recovered from Trackanon, as Man Seeking Woman resets itself for season two. The premiere presumably picks up a while after the disastrous events of the season one finale, which go unmentioned, but the series wisely does not reboot entirely; rather than focus on Josh’s latest paramour, this episode opens with Mike as he fights for his and Josh’s friendship, which Josh has neglected in favor of spending as much time as possible with his new girlfriend, Kelly. As entertaining and relatable as much of Man Seeking Woman’s first season was, its tight focus on Josh’s perspective—outside of series’ best “Teacup”—was at times limiting and by far its strongest episodes focused on the psychology of its main characters. Rather than ask viewers to reinvest in Josh’s post-Maggie return to the dating scene, the premiere puts Josh and Mike’s friendship center stage, giving the often underserved Eric André some good material to work with while hinting at a more balanced approach to the core ensemble in season two.

Though “Wings” adheres to the three-part format of season one, the narrative through-line of the episode is particularly strong, and this cohesiveness adds depth. Each of the episode’s three main segments—Mike unionizing Josh’s friends to strike for more hang time, Josh feeling left out of Kelly’s friends’ dark past, and Josh realizing just how much he’s missed via his and Mike’s daughter, Sophie—work individually, but as a progression, they’re even better. It’s hard to pick a favorite of the bunch. Mike’s path to the negotiating table is the most visceral and immediately relatable, and it may hit a little close to home for those struggling with similar fractures in their social circle. As the segment is presented from Mike’s point of view, Josh is the increasingly callous villain of the piece, but the writers make sure to share the blame a bit by including delightfully obtuse demands from Mike, who does not see a difference between Liz’s request for a comrade in arms when visiting Liz and Josh’s Nana and his required 35 hours a week of gaming. The concept itself is strong, but it’s this thoughtfulness in execution that makes the segment work particularly well.

More fanciful is Josh’s weekend getaway with Kelly and her friends, which lacks the emotional punch of Mike and Josh’s initial estrangement but captures through absurd extremes the feeling of othering that can come when meeting a new friend’s old friends. Not only does Josh not understand the connection Kelly and her friends share, to him it’s violent and dangerous, something to flee, rather than embrace. At the same time, Kelly and her friends are experiencing something powerful and inescapable, and Josh refuses to acknowledge or engage with this, distracting himself with a puzzle. As in the first segment, both parties are right and both parties are wrong: It’s utterly incomprehensible that Kelly would choose to return to the cabin, but once the undead lumberjack rears his fantastically made-up head, it’s even stranger that Josh thinks he should have a moment of Kelly’s attention. While the disconnect between Josh and Kelly is what drives the segment, underpinning it is a look at current versus lapsed friendships, and what drives them. If Josh lets his and Mike’s relationship wither entirely, will the only thing connecting them become their own crazed undead former victim?

It’s fitting, then, that the final segment sees Josh and Mike come back together in the most creative and conceptually strong of the episode’s flights of fancy. A moody, withdrawn teen is the perfect personification of a damaged relationship: raw, detached, even intentionally cruel, yet underneath this, longing to connect. By personifying Josh and Mike’s friendship in Sophie, the writers are able to explore both characters’ relationships with their relationship, whether it’s Mike’s careful attention to Sophie or Josh’s obliviousness. This approach also highlights the space between Mike and Josh’s individual well-being and Sophie’s. Mike will be fine without Josh, but if Sophie is to flourish, she needs attention from both her fathers, and Josh doesn’t just want Mike to be happy, he wants to rebuild the connection he’s let atrophy; he wants Sophie in his life. It’s an entertaining and fun metaphor, and one that could easily be returned to at a later point in the series. Ending the episode with Mike and Josh sending Sophie off to college is a nice touch that not only shows their relationship being back on track, but adds to the reality of the world, in which theoretically, each of the series’ heightened experiences actually happen. Had Sophie disappeared without explanation, it would have chipped away at the show’s reality. Instead, viewers are given a concrete and straightforward reason for her absence, and this care from the writers is appreciated.

The emotional arc of “Wings” makes it one of Man Seeking Woman’s more satisfying entries, and one of its more thought-provoking, but just as important is the sense of whimsy and fun that pervades the episode. The unique expressionist approach of the series is its calling card, but it’s also a comedy and this premiere never loses sight of this, juxtaposing ridiculous visuals and conceits with deadpan performances from the cast. Man Seeking Woman is fueled by comedy of recognition, but also comedy of relief, reassuring those watching that they aren’t the only ones who feel so deeply and so completely. 2015 brought a tremendous volume of excellent, entertaining, affecting television, but nothing else quite like this show, and it’s wonderful to have it back.

Stray observations

  • Very glad to see Robin Duke and Mark McKinney back as Josh’s mom and step-dad. Duke’s intense delivery of her negotiation demands is hilarious, as is McKinney’s low-key approach to Tom’s main concern, his computer woes.
  • Of course Liz typed out and printed her protest sign, and of course it’s an acrostic. Liz, never change.
  • I love that on the picket line, Mike is literally standing on a soap box, which is labeled as such.
  • The running bit of the Blade trilogy is delightful. From the little we hear, Mike should have listened to the General and skipped the third one.
  • The scoring throughout is fun, and details like the costuming of Kelly’s friends all incorporating similar earthy colors and plaids, in contrast to Kelly’s whites—the better to show blood stains—and Josh’s dark blues, add to the overall cohesiveness of the episode.
  • It bears repeating: Sophie’s adorable and I really hope she returns at some point.
  • Man Seeking Woman is back, and I’m stoked to be covering it again for The A.V. Club! What a lovely, stained glass unicorn of a show.