Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for January 21 through 28 is “Popcorn,” the fourth episode of the third season of FXX’s Man Seeking Woman.
The best way to deal with a dating disaster (i.e., “dating”) is usually to find a way to laugh about it. Man Seeking Woman knows this better than most, turning the subtext of everyday catastrophes into hilarious text.
In its first two seasons, the series followed the dating misadventures of Josh (Jay Baruchel), your basic lovelorn guy who just wants to find someone to settle down with. His single life was an obstacle course of misery and humiliation, which Man Seeking Woman played up with surrealist sketches that took cues from series creator Simon Rich’s collection of absurdist essays about dating, Last Girlfriend on Earth.
So when Josh wanted to brainstorm a text to a girl, for example, the show would cut to an actual war room of advisers breaking down the message. And when he met his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, no one would believe him when he said the new guy sucked — even though he was literally Adolf Hitler.
But after two seasons of exploring Josh’s single life, Man Seeking Woman has taken a sharp turn in season three by letting him enter a long-term, committed relationship with Lucy (How to Get Away With Murder’s Katie Findlay), a goofy graphic designer. At its most basic level, this shift in focus allows the show to branch out from dating mishaps and find new material in the fun and fraught time that is the first year or so in a couple’s relationship.
However, on a deeper level, the show has used Josh’s new relationship status to reset itself a bit, by making Findlay a true co-star to Baruchel. She’s not just Josh’s girlfriend; she’s a new lead character in both his life and the show itself.
“Popcorn” depicts passive aggression as a literal horrorshow
In “Popcorn,” directed by Ryan Case, Lucy takes center stage for an episode set almost entirely in her parents’ house. And even though the episode is only 20 minutes long, it still manages to be a horror movie, a coming-of-age tale, and a romantic comedy all at once.
When Lucy reluctantly brings Josh to meet her parents, he holds her hand and beams while she eyes her childhood home warily. “All we have to do is spend one night in this old house,” he says, at which point the camera zooms out ominously.
Josh might not realize it, but he’s about to step into a horror movie.
The first half of the episode sees Lucy frantically trying to prove that her parents — played to faux-chirpy perfection by Mark Moses and Julie White — aren’t entirely as supportive of her as they might seem. And with Man Seeking Woman’s surrealist proclivities being what they are, her paranoia soon manifests in the form of her enlisting “passive-aggressive activity” detectors to bug her house and catch her parents in the act.
But Josh keeps getting taken in by her parents’ generosity, shrugging off Lucy’s suspicions. By the end of the night, he’s begging her to just come downstairs and finish watching Saving Mr. Banks with them before he misses the part where Mr. Banks is saved. “That’s why you couldn’t see it,” she marvels in horror. “You’re one of them.”
The horror movie elements make “Popcorn” a fun genre spoof in and of itself, but the way Case, Findlay, and writer Jason Belleville play it, the episode is also a super smart way for Man Seeking Woman to illustrate Lucy’s anxieties and relationship with her parents. Lucy has clearly been sensitive about the way her parents seem to support her in one way (by paying off her student loans) while dismissing her in others (shrugging off her graphic design work) for years. Now she’s paranoid, annoyed, and even downright hostile — all classic characteristics of a trapped heroine in a horror movie.
But when Josh finally confronts her about being a total jerk to her parents — who, again, are paying off her student loans and welcoming her new boyfriend with open arms — the episode takes a smart turn into a more wistful genre.
Lucy tries to run from her problems and retreat to childhood. The way her attempts backfire is pitch perfect.
Halfway through “Popcorn,” Lucy concludes, by way of a stark tribunal, that Josh has been disloyal to her by liking her parents. The scene is a spot-on parody of McCarthy-era hunts for communists, an absurd segment that also sharply depicts a real argument. Josh is annoyed that Lucy thinks him getting along with her parents constitutes a betrayal; Lucy is upset that Josh won’t believe her lived experience. Both parties have reasons to be upset.
But “Popcorn” is about Lucy, and so we follow her out of the tribunal as she yells that Josh and his parent supporter compatriots can suck her dick. She heads for the attic she used to retreat to as a kid, shuffles through the crawl space, and emerges in her imaginary childhood world, populated by her fuzzy imaginary friends, à la Where the Wild Things Are.
It’s hard to describe just how bizarre and wonderful it is to watch Findlay interact with these weirdo creatures, so you might have to take my word on how perfect her performance is as her face lights up when her old friends peek out from behind the trees. But the fantasy breaks the second she suggests running away to eat “jelly pies” forever, and one of her friends shakes his enormous horned head as he grimaces and begs off: “My nutritionist has me off pies.”
As it turns out, Lucy’s not the only one who got older in the 20 years since she visited this world; her imaginary friends did, too. And when she keeps trying to escape her problems and ask for sympathy about her parents constantly trying to foist financial responsibility on her, one of them — voiced by Saturday Night Live’s Bobby Moynihan — gently asks her if she does, in fact, know what an IRA is. (She admits she doesn’t, prompting him to give one of the clearest explanations I personally have ever heard. Thanks, Man Seeking Woman!)
Eventually, Lucy crawls back out of her fantasy world and into the real one (albeit this time after downing a hefty dose of restorative Xanax). She and Josh acknowledge that they each had valid points worth considering, and their mutual support results in the couple saying they love each other for the first time.
Any TV show that can successfully take as many emotional turns as “Popcorn” does in 20 minutes — without totally going off the rails — is impressive. And Man Seeking Woman pulls it off while mixing in incisive genre parodies and a bonus IRA lesson, to boot. The episode is a prime example of what the show does best: tell relatable, emotional stories with a beating heart, a grin, and a self-aware wink.
Man Seeking Woman airs Wednesdays at 10:30 pm on FXX. The first two seasons are currently available to stream on Hulu.