This Week in TV: The Virtues Of Multi-Cams, and the Evolution of FXX's 'Man Seeking Woman'
This week, I have thoughts on two shows doing some surprising things. They could not be more different, and they could not impress me more.
FXX’s Man Seeking Woman is one of those shows I often forget about and then am ABSOLUTELY DELIGHTED to realize is returning. The fact that it airs so early in the calendar year doesn’t help, nor does its historically hit-or-miss success rate with individual episodes. Even though the program increased its serialization in its second season, each episode was more or less a spin of the roulette wheel in terms of quality. If the high-concept-of-the-week worked, it worked like gangbusters. If it didn’t, well, at least there was always next time.
But the third season (of which I’ve seen most, thanks to screeners) is such a surprise that it makes me think slightly less of all that’s come before. It’s not that those seasons are now retroactively bad, but they do seem to have a ceiling that I wasn’t even aware existed. Succinctly put: the third season takes everything amazing about its most amazing episode, season two’s “Tinsel,” and asks, “Why can’t we just do that all the time?” It’s a fundamental change to its approach, and it works so well that I’m almost mad that it didn’t try it before.
In essence, the show’s title is now a misnomer, up there with Jane The Virgin in terms of antiquity. Jay Baruchel has always been great as protagonist Josh, but it’s the introduction of Lucy (Katie Findlay) that has allowed the show to make the leap from good to flat-out, consistently great. I hesitate to call Lucy “Josh’s love interest.” In fact, I refuse to categorize her as that, because that’s the genius of the show’s integration of Lucy: She’s not the object of Josh’s affection. She’s the subject of her own narrative, one that’s drawn out in last week’s premiere in just a few quick strokes. It reminded me of the first page of Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. Morrison used eight words to summarize Kal-El’s origin, and “Futon” is equally efficient in making us understand and care for Lucy in its opening sequence.
In “Tinsel,” the show stepped away from Josh for an episode in order to view the world through the eyes of his sister, Liz. A follow-up concept episode of season one’s “Teacup,” “Tinsel” was great but still a novelty within the world of the show. In season three, both Josh and Lucy get equal time to be romantic, stupid, jealous, silly, fucked up, and every other thing that makes a human being a human being. There’s no ownership over flights of fancy and trips into surrealism. This opens up the world of Man Seeking Woman beyond the fractured lens of one man and suggests a shared universe in which odd is the new normal. In season two, the character of Rosa was one upon which both Josh and his best friend Mike (Eric André) projected their own hopes and insecurities. In contrast, Lucy is a fully three-dimensional character, who is as likely to mess up her relationship with Josh as he is. She’s not idealized or objectified. She simply is, and each episode reveals a little more about what makes her tick.
This increase in female perspective in front of the camera is mirrored behind-the-scenes as well, as creator Simon Rich hired the series’ first two female directors (Ryan Case and Rachel Goldenberg) to helm nearly half of the season’s episodes. Both developments suggest a move beyond the inherently-limited title Man Seeking Woman into something more universal. Man Seeking Woman Seeking Man is a step in the right direction. Man Seeking Man Or Woman Because Sexuality Is Fluid After All is probably even better. The point isn’t that opening up the show’s possibilities is smart because it’s politically correct to do so, but because it’s inherently more interesting to have more options in play. The Liz-centric episodes of this show have already demonstrated how vibrant the program’s premise is. Making Lucy a true partner for Josh in both love and perspective gives the program a much-needed shot in the arm that extends its narrative possibilities by literal seasons’ worth of material. Why mine the same ground when there’s an entire world to explore?
In coming weeks, I’ll have more to say about specific episodes, as Ryan Case has been nice enough to grant me some thoughts on the key installments “Popcorn” and “Bagel.” For now, if you thought this show might not be for you, there’s never been a better time to jump in.
Both critics and viewers appreciate innovation in storytelling, but sometimes a smart execution of a tried-and-true formula can be thrilling as well. That’s not to damn Netflix’s new series One Day At a Time with faint praise to state that it doesn’t re-invent the narrative wheel. Far from it. “Multi-cam” is a bad word for many television fans, especially younger audiences that view the American version of The Office as an example of “classic” TV. But when deployed correctly, multi-cam comedies can evoke an immediacy that the sexier single-cam programs simply cannot.
I grew up watching shows like Taxi, Cheers, and All In The Family reruns during dinner each night. I didn’t understand everything I was watching, but I grew used to the rhythms and beats of these kinds of shows. I got into theatre in high school primarily because I loved the staginess of these shows. A simple set, complex characters, and relatable squabbles were all that were needed to drive dozens of quality episodes a season. These shows didn’t feel the need to go big, because they could always go deep whenever necessary. Plumbing the depths of these characters almost invariably mined deep drama: Because we got to know them so well, even the smallest setbacks felt like enormous deals.
Now, making this look so easy took an unbelievable amount of work. Most people now think of “multi-cam” comedies as lazy, because a great deal of them straight up suck. Now, to be fair, most television sucks. This isn’t something uniquely indicative of multi-cams. But because there are so few relative to the rest of Peak TV, that lesser quality can stand out. Two And A Half Men turned into a synecdoche for the genre, with broad, crude jokes replacing character-based observations and tribulations. That’s an unfair blemish on the genre, but as comedies like Arrested Development developed critical adulation, multi-cams turned into an antiquated afterthought for both networks and audiences. Sure, some survived even in the leaner times, but out of inertia more than anything.
What so many of those lesser shows forgot, and what some are now smartly realizing, is that performing these “small” stories in front of an actual audience affords an opportunity for uncomfortable intimacy that no other subgenre of television can create. The best shows in this genre right now — Mom, The Carmichael Show, and One Day At a Time — craft scenes of unflinching conflict in a space in which no one can escape. Neither the characters nor audience have the opportunity to flee. Everyone’s in it together. And that energy absolutely translates to the viewing audience at home. That’s not to say that intimate moments can’t be crafted outside of a soundstage. But there’s a palpable difference when it happens in a shared space.
The concept of a “shared space” might sound bizarre when talking about Netflix, a service that is happy with you watching its shows on your phone with the headphones on in the backseat of a car while ignoring the rest of the passengers. But it’s a fundamentally different experience to hear the Alvarez family talk about religion, economic struggles, sexism, and ethnic identity in front of a live audience than in a location-based setting. It’s not simply that the rhythms of the writing are different, with jokes taking the place of editing choices to drive the comedy. It’s the intuitive idea that we at home are those in the audience, and we’re watching something that maybe we shouldn’t be watching at all, yet from which we can’t look away.
It’s not that all multi-cams should turn into the unrelenting drama of Horace And Pete, a show I admired very much and look forward to never seeing again because HOLY BLEAK, BATMAN. But there’s a rare opportunity that most multi-cams either don’t or won’t take in staging difficult conversations in which there’s rarely a “right” side. A common thread through most superior small-screen programs is the mixture of comedy and drama: an episode of Mad Men could be the funniest thing on TV that week, and an episode of Insecure might be the most emotionally-draining episode of the night. No one thinks that’s it odd for these programs to mix high and low elements. Why should multi-cams be excluded from that assumption?
Extolling the virtues of the theoretically outdated form of the multi-cam isn’t some hipster-esque reclamation of the old as superior to the new. Nor is it a way to denigrate the single-cam programs that have dominated the landscape for the last fifteen years. Rather, it’s a way to praise shows like One Day At A Time that understand that the genre’s best qualities never went away, but simply needed to be re-presented in the proper light. Plenty of shows can inspire conversation. But shows like One Day stage conversations we didn’t even realized we needed to hear in the first place. These conversations aren’t filled with purple prose, but with simple, direct words that we’re often too afraid to utter. The Alvarez family comes through these conversations bruised but better for them, and so do we.