Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Man Seeking Woman preaches the gospel of Josh

Illustration for article titled Man Seeking Woman preaches the gospel of Josh

Much of television, sitcoms in particular, relies on maintaining the status quo. Once a show’s premise has been established it may morph somewhat, but significant change is anathema to the comfortable feeling of following the somewhat predictable exploits of a recognizable set of characters. Man Seeking Woman follows Josh Greenberg as he navigates the dating world, an underachieving single guy in over his head. If he finds himself in a significant, long-term relationship or suddenly becomes more conventionally desirable—by becoming a successful video game designer, for example—Josh’s unlucky in love narrative no longer works and Man Seeking Woman becomes a very different show. However without any growth from Josh, or sense that he’s learning from his journey, the series threatens to stagnate. “Card” addresses this concern nicely, moving Josh forward at work and showing his first baby steps toward maturity.

Focusing on Josh’s career path, rather than his romantic life, is a nice change of pace. Almost no time has been given to Josh’s work throughout the series, or even his career interests. His insecurities have been well documented, however, and are returned to in the opening as Josh attends his 10 year high school reunion. This short scene sets the tone for the entire episode, more introspective and chuckle-worthy than gut-busting. Josh discovers that his high school friends have all grown up to be astronauts in about as sedate a way as he possibly could, over casual conversation. While this keeps the scene grounded, and the focus on Josh’s growing self-consciousness, it lacks the heightened punch of the series’ more memorable sequences. Man Seeking Woman excels when it highlights intense and underexplored emotions by depicting the scope of how a moment makes one feel, rather than the moment itself. This exchange takes a different approach, putting viewers in Josh’s shoes by making the situation incredibly relatable; unfortunately, the episode goes too far. This is a scene plenty of other series have done before, and while “Card” executes a familiar idea well, there’s little to distinguish this show’s take from that of any other twenty-something-centered sitcom.

Also suffering from over-familiarity is the episode’s central sequence, Josh’s advanced coding class. While his classmates’ enormous, glowing craniums make for a great visual and their potential gestalt consciousness captures nicely the feeling of being out of one’s depth, the core concept is very similar to Mike’s spiral eyes in “Pitbull,” though this is a much preferred and less problematic context in which to explore the idea. In both cases, Josh feels like he’s missing a crucial skill; somehow, everyone around him has an advantage they don’t even see and can’t comprehend not having, and there’s nothing he can do to catch up with them. Josh is incredibly intimidated and his new-found self-confidence falls away, but while the segment works well and is entertaining, it doesn’t contribute to a larger discussion. We don’t know Josh well enough to know if he’s truly passionate about game design, an idea that seems to spring more from his mother’s suggestion than his own aspirations, so we don’t know how to feel about the quashing of this dream. While it’s great to see Josh actively pursue something besides a love interest, this detour into the world of coding feels like just that, a detour.

More successful are the episode’s other two flights of fancy, particularly Patti’s tent revival, the clear high point of the episode. Robin Duke is having a blast preaching the good word, going delightfully over the top while Mark McKinney maintains Tom’s goofy (step-)dad demeanor. From Patti’s ignoring of Liz to her speaking in tongues and so quickly winning Josh over, the whole sequence is great, and it gets at some significant issues. Parents’ aspirations for their children, versus expectations, can be complicated and the episode doesn’t gloss over this or provide a pat resolution, but it also doesn’t explore the topic enough to give the tent revival weight beyond its initial laugh of recognition and entertaining flourishes. How is Patti’s surety here that Josh deserves better in his work life, presented as potentially damaging wishful thinking, different than her urging him not to settle for the 1998 Saturn in “Scythe,” which was presented as a helpful and much-needed intervention? Regardless, the revival winds up being a positive force in Josh’s life, pushing him to try the wrong path so he can see the right one more clearly and actively, rather than reflexively, choose to move forward in his career.

While office management may not have the allure of Josh’s desired career in game design, it’s a big step up from temping and, based on the little we know about Josh, it feels like something he could be good at. His episode-ending graduation from his terrible college beer to mediocre, drinkable beer is a fun and creative way to mark the change, and is the kind of honest, but less commonly presented milestone Man Seeking Woman embraces. “Card” may not stand out as one of the best episodes of this season, but it’s an entertaining, winning installment nonetheless, and indicative of how much the show has grown. The more the series plays with its format and takes risks, the better off it will be, whether that’s following Liz for a day or diving into previously unexplored territory in Josh’s life.

Stray observations

  • Unfortunately, this review marks the end of The A.V. Club’s weekly coverage of Man Seeking Woman. Writing about the show and discussing it with its passionate fans has been a pleasure; thank you to everyone who read along and joined the fun in the comments.
  • “Card” marks the beginning of a mini-arc for season two. The next episode, “Honey,” introduces Rosa more fully, sees the return of Jeff Pangman as Josh’s boss Charles Powell, and features a fantastic guest turn from Fred Armisen; it’s my favorite of the season so far.
  • Speaking of Pangman, the disdain dripping in Powell’s voice as he explains that Josh’s predecessor as office manager is, “leaving to take care of her kids” is wonderful, as is Borlon’s oh-so-helpful, “Just pulse your neurons until the answer manifests itself.” That being said, Patti’s, “I think you should talk to [Mark Zuckerberg]” is the line of the episode, for me. There’s nothing quite like advice from a well-meaning, but utterly uninformed acquaintance or family member.
  • It’s great to see Britt Lower and especially Robin Duke and Mark McKinney featured more prominently here, but Eric André remains criminally underserved this season, aside from the season premiere. I have my fingers crossed that he’ll get a spotlight episode of his own later this season, akin to “Teacup” and “Tinsel.”