What you deserve to watch:
I have trouble selling Man Seeking Woman. Since I first caught the show—created by Simon Rich, available on Hotstar—a couple of months ago, I have enthusiastically attempted to recommend it to all within earshot. It is, however, a tad hard to boil down to one line, so bear with me. This is a show where a guy, freshly bereaved of his romantic relationship, is trying to move on. Every backstory ever, basically. What separates this show from any other television romance is the way it leaves reality behind to focus, entirely and dedicatedly, on the ‘what-if’. And on the ‘literally’.
What if, for example, your ex-girlfriend is now dating Herr Führer? Are you supposed to be kindly and accepting of the new man in her life, or do you point out the fact that he’s, well, Hitler, and it doesn’t matter if he can rev up a party? Or you’re invited to a destination wedding, literally thrown in Hell, an affair that necessitates sword-buying and, naturally, inferno-rappelling. At one point a girl at a party, tired of stultifying conversation, drops down stone dead. Of boredom.
The basic treatment of taking a ‘hey, how about this?’ idea a few steps ahead has been around forever. We’ve seen characters picturing, in graphic detail, how satisfying it would feel to punch their boss in the nose before cutting back to them sitting, meek and forlorn, on a chair while the boss continues harrumphing away, nose perfectly safe. We’ve seen such exaggerations taken a whole lot further, via shows as diverse as Ally McBeal and The Family Guy, but it would still play out as a vignette before bouncing us back to reality, or, more accurately, to the show’s status quo. Man Seeking Woman is all about taking what could have been throwaway gags and really digging deep with each of them.
Defined thus by absurdity, the show then tries to flesh out these impossible scenarios, grounding them in minutiae and, basically, adding reality to the joke instead of the other way around. It is a system that works with a smoothness reminiscent of Edgar Wright’s zany Spaced, but this show is decidedly more lovelorn and obsessive in its detailing. Jay Baruchel is a solid choice for the lead, but—as the whiny, dull, straight-man at the centre of it all—has less fun than co-stars Eric Andre and Britt Lower, both going as crazy as the episodes will let them.
A girl must be texted. That familiar loop of composing and deleting and second-guessing is here elevated to the high hysterics of a war room, with commanders-in-chief frantically trying to work out how our hero may best convey just the right amount of interest. How can you not applaud that? Scale is in the eyes of the beholder, after all.
It might seem an odd fit, for a show about modern love and insecurity to hinge so determinedly on the unreal, but it adds up. Nothing is more surreal than dating.
What life’s too short to watch:
Sam Elliott, the grizzled veteran of many a Western, has a gravelly yet silken voice that sounds like he could authoritatively (but gently, always gently) give God a better idea. Heck, he even set The Dude straight. Don’t let that be reason enough to try The Ranch, though. I’d gladly take his wry words and bushily quizzical eyebrows in themselves, but it’s quite another thing to watch him hanging around That 70s Show alumni Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson, both of whom seem only to have gotten more unbearable. The Ranch is a men-telling-stupid-jokes show, with unremarkable punchlines and an optimistically placed laugh-track. Steer clear of this Netflix turkey.
What everyone’s watching:
This week, everyone—or, at least as close to everyone as we get in these times of television so good it is impossible to reach unanimous agreement—is going to be watching the second season of Narcos. One of the greatest hits in the Netflix arsenal, the first season told the Pablo Escobar story with such riveting panache that it didn’t matter it was in Spanish. The world ate it up. Narcos is a bonafide groundbreaker, a show that crossed over by sticking to deep cultural roots, and it’ll be fascinating to see how we all react to this second season that starts this Friday. The hype, I fear, may be a tad too deafening to live up to.
Documentary to watch this week:
Nothing soothes frayed nerves like music, and musician nerves are rarely as frayed as those of Australian concert pianist David Helfgott. Helfgott— a mentally challenged 69-year-old treated at length for manic depression and schizophrenia— continues to make and perform sensational, challenging music despite personally showing signs of eccentric and unintelligible behaviour.
Geoffrey Rush won an Oscar for playing Helfgott in the 1996 film Shine, but it feels quite special to see the pianist himself in the new Netflix documentary, Hello, I Am David. It affectionately captures Helfgott, still delightfully in action, and the music featured is inspirationally great.
Streams of Stories is a weekly column on what watch to online.Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen