Early in the first episode of Hulu’s new tongue-in-cheek time-travel adventure Future Man, the show’s slacker hero, Josh Futturman (played by Josh Hutcherson), drops by his local video game store, where he and the employees have a long conversation about Ms. Pac-Man’s sexual appetites. Later, back in his bedroom, Josh defeats the final boss in his favorite game, Biotic Wars. He celebrates his victory by masturbating to an image of the game’s sexy warrior character, Tiger. Right as he’s about to finish, the real Tiger (Eliza Coupe) and her partner Wolf (Derek Wilson) materialize right in front of him. Josh ejaculates on Wolf.
It probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that Future Man was produced by Superbad / Pineapple Express screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and created by their Sausage Party writing partners Ariel Shaffir and Kyle Hunter. These guys have always been unapologetic about their love of “guys will be guys” movies like Animal House, Caddyshack, and Stripes. They dig jokes about drugs, sex, and bodily fluids.
But while this isn’t Rogen and Goldberg’s fault, there’s rarely been a worse time in America’s cultural history to debut a comedy like Future Man, made by and for dudes. Scarcely a day has gone by in the past month without some new breaking news about powerful men in show business or politics indulging vulgar and often illegal appetites. Right about now, the world could use a break from stories about males thinking about — and with — their junk.
To be fair to Future Man, it isn’t really a show about dicks. It’s mostly an amiable, fitfully funny spoof of 1980s science fiction movies and TV, directly and indirectly referencing The Last Starfighter, Back To The Future, Quantum Leap, and The Terminator, among others. It’s also a fish-out-of-water comedy, about two jacked-up action heroes struggling to grasp the subtleties of our modern world.
When Tiger and Wolf arrive in Josh’s room, they explain that they sent the Biotic Wars game back in time from their “Lost Angeles” of 2162, to locate and train the person who’ll liberate future humanity from its techno-dystopia. Unfortunately, though Josh beat the game, he’s just a janitor, with no ambition or skills. By the end of episode 1, after they’ve jumped to 1969 to try and stop the event that sets mankind’s downfall in motion, the 22nd century supersoldiers realize their “chosen one” isn’t so choice.
Future Man was originally pitched as a movie, which is obvious from the seven episodes (out of 13) sent to critics. As Rogen and Goldberg demonstrated through their work on AMC’s Preacher, they know how to sculpt a serialized plot into distinct chapters, with their own intros, endings, and self-contained arcs. Yet Future Man still sprawls, with barely enough story to fill each half-hour.
One way Future Man kills time is by following Tiger and Wolf around, enjoying their wonderment at everything from babies (absent in the sterilized world of 2162) to the music of Corey Hart. These moments represent the show at its peak, simultaneously bittersweet and creatively strange. Coupe and Wilson strike a good balance between cartoonishly gruff and genuinely awed by their ancestors’ abundance. At one point, Tiger learns to walk in high heels borrowed from Josh’s mom (played by the late Glenne Headly, in her last screen role), and the bond that develops between these two very different women is surprisingly touching for such a silly show.
Still, a big reason why Tiger and Wolf are the best part of Future Man is that they feel like original characters, with pasts and a point of view. They’re not just plot-drivers, like the scientist played by Keith David (whose herpes cure the heroes are trying to quash), nor are they generically foul-mouthed foils, like the ones played by Paul Scheer, Martin Starr, and Haley Joel Osment.
Hutcherson is likable as Josh, but even the show’s protagonist is a featureless conduit for his creators’ narrative needs and personal obsessions. Put it this way: he’s a man in his mid-20s who knows more about the movies and TV shows Rogen and Goldberg grew up with than he does about 2017. Nevertheless, he catches the eye of a gorgeous co-worker named Jeri (Britt Lower), who describes him as “dopey” and “harmless,” but also “charming” and “not unattractive.”
The Josh / Jeri flirtation recalls the familiar bro-comedy gender imbalance that plagues Knocked Up, written and directed by Judd Apatow. In that film, Rogen plays a schlub who falls into a romance with a gorgeous, ambitious, intelligent woman (played by Katherine Heigl) who’s seemingly out of his league. When Heigl registered mild complaints in the press that her character was underwritten, she was widely excoriated for the sin of hurting Apatow’s feelings.
In retrospect, she was ahead of her time. Knocked Up is a good movie — and Future Man is a mostly okay TV show — but there’s nothing wrong with pointing out that their perspective is too limited, and maybe the people behind them should expand their imagination beyond the life experiences of middle-aged comedy writers. A big part of how the current sexual harassment mess evolved is the presumption that successful entertainers and moguls possess a spark of genius that could be extinguished if they’re ever asked to be more empathetic.
It’s unfortunate that Future Man is tarred by this familiar dynamic and this current cultural moment, because it’s more middling than malevolent. The show is polished and punchy, with good special effects, well-choreographed action, and at least one laugh-out-loud moment per episode. But a lot of it also seems to run on dude-comedy autopilot, which is getting harder just to shrug off these days.
Consider a sequence from the second episode, where Josh, Tiger, and Wolf infiltrate a party at a black fraternity in 1969. What starts out as a fairly sharp joke about the heroes’ varying levels of racial insensitivity takes a turn when Josh instigates a dance-off, which he wins by doing Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Cut to a partygoer calling his cousin Tito, to tip Michael off about this amazing new move.
That gag is a direct steal from a similar moment in Back To The Future, where Marty McFly inadvertently inspires Chuck Berry to invent the rock n roll sound. Rogen and Goldberg apparently aren’t aware how controversial the original scene is, and how it’s provoked thoughtful conversations about the long history of whites usurping credit for African-Americans’ artistic accomplishments. If they knew, they could’ve used that sequence to comment on the film that inspired it, and the queasy ideas at play in this particular gag. But that isn’t what’s happening here. Instead, this appears to be just a swipe of something Future Man’s creators saw when they were younger and thought was funny. It’s dopey, but not charming, and maybe not even harmless. There’s no reason to shrug off something this thoughtless from comedians who are supposed to be smart.
Future Man premieres November 14th on Hulu.