Last month, Hulu earned its stripes as a legitimate TV powerhouse with a bevy of Emmy wins for The Handmaid’s Tale, but that doesn’t mean the streaming service is staying away from comedies. It also doesn’t mean that those comedies won’t make yours truly cry a little bit.
I’m referring to the trailer for Future Man, Hulu’s upcoming series that follows a janitor and hardcore gamer (played by The Hunger Games’ Josh Hutcherson) who is drawn into a time-traveling adventure to save the future of humanity. It’s created by Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir, two of the writers behind the irreverent Sausage Party, and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are executive producers, so it obviously embraces a certain kind of comedic tone. But I want to talk about something slightly different: its use of nostalgia.
The trailer for Future Man is packed full of references. There are glimpses of scenes that appear to be pulled straight from The Terminator. People name-check The Last Starfighter. Hutcherson’s character gets in a fight with somebody wearing the same kind of yellow radiation suit Marty McFly wore in Back to the Future. Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” blares while volleyball players high-five in slow motion, a direct lift from Top Gun. Our trio of would-be heroes pull guns in Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles in what is clearly a nod to the opening (and closing) scenes of Pulp Fiction.
Then there’s the other Back to the Future reference: at one point, Hutcherson’s character appears to introduce the moonwalk to a bunch of people in the past, inspiring a partygoer to call someone named Tito — presumably Jackson — so he can pass the dance move along to his little brother Michael. It’s a riff on the scene where Marty McFly unleashes “Johnny B. Goode” on a group of unsuspecting ‘50s teenagers, and Chuck Berry’s cousin calls him up for a listen, sure. But if the idea of a suburban white kid being the real inspiration behind rock n roll was problematic in terms of cultural appropriation, I don’t even know what to think about the idea of a schlubby gamer being the true creator of Michael Jackson’s signature move.
All of that aside, the endless references are simply exhausting — and the trailer is only three minutes long. Shows like Stranger Things have succeeded because they have fully formed characters and rich stories that also happen to be in a period setting. Nostalgia in those instances is used more like grace notes, things that set off a different layer of resonance to something that is already working on its own. The movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It used the 1980s in a very similar, and quite successful, way. The trailer for Future Man uses nostalgia as a cudgel, beating the viewer until they enter a numb state that only vaguely resembles amusement.
Of course, this is only a trailer. The show could very well have much more going for it. And the idea of a show about time travel that endlessly evokes period references whenever its characters visit a new time is probably too good a hook to pass up from a marketing perspective. But when it comes to playing the nostalgia card, there’s a very fine line between celebration and exhaustion. Hopefully Future Man the series understands the difference. It premieres on Hulu November 14th.