tv review

Future Man Is a Bawdy, Tiresome Riff on Sci-Fi Classics

Photo: Brandon Hickman/Hulu

Future Man is not unwatchable, but it’s pretty bad. Hulu’s time-travel comedy about a janitor recruited to save humanity from extinction is produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the minds behind This Is the End, Superbad, and Pineapple Express, and written by Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir, who penned the screenplay for Rogen and Goldberg’s Sausage Party. It has amusing moments and a number of committed performances, and the filmmakers were clearly given a big enough budget to approximate the science-fiction classics they reference (mainly Back to the FutureQuantum Leap, and the Terminator franchise; Halli Cauthery’s score apes Brad Fiedel’s music in the latter). But the end product is another example of a TV series laboring to extrude a couple of hours’ worth of plot over 13 half-hour installments while substituting a knowledge of popular culture for storytelling chops and characters you care about.

Josh Hutcherson plays Josh Futturman, a science lab janitor who’s obsessed with beating a video game that’s believed to be unbeatable. When he achieves the impossible, he is instantly visited by two warriors from the future, Tiger (Happy Endings’ Eliza Coupe) and Wolf (Derek Wilson of Rogen and Goldberg’s Preacher). They tell him it’s a simulator designed to identify the savior who will rescue humanity from eradication by a monstrous race that suggests a fusion of zombies, Terminators, and Cylons. Turns out the key to the extinction event is a cure for herpes, developed by the lead scientist (Keith David) at the facility where Josh works. Josh and the two future-warriors have to travel back in time to 1969 and prevent the scientist from contracting herpes during a fraternity party on the night of the first moon landing.

Things don’t go as planned, obviously, and then they don’t go as planned again, and so forth, and so on. The show has bawdy, “edgy” humor characteristic of the Rogen-Goldberg factory, including a man accidentally ejaculating on somebody, a verbal description of what it would be like to have sex with Ms. Pac-Man, numerous scenes of sadistic or gory comic violence, and the revelation that in the future, warriors amp up their energy level before a mission by having rough, loud sex. The Groundhog Day–Edge of Tomorrow “endless loop” structure is deployed not to comment on free will and destiny, or even to mimic the structure of the video game that our young hero is obsessed with, but to prolong the story beyond what would appear to be its natural lifespan, by having the good guys try to undo a historical origin point for catastrophe and fail in a way that makes it even harder to undo. This may sound intriguing in theory, but here, it’s tiresome, because the show hasn’t come up with anything as hilarious, surprising, exciting, or frightening as the older films and TV shows it’s referencing. Another problem: In terms of tone, pacing, and pop-culture touchstones, Future Man is in the same wheelhouse as Rick and Morty, which is superior in every way.

It’s slightly appalling how often Future Man straight-up rips off the best-known moments from beloved earlier works in the guise of paying homage, then shrugs off its own lack of imagination by copping to the fact that the show is a pastiche, and a knowingly half-assed one at that. The aforementioned fraternity dance, for instance, rips off at least three major bits from the Back to the Future trilogy: the image of hero Marty McFly in a spacesuit, the moment near the end of the first film when Marty plays Chuck Berry at the prom and “invents” rock and roll, and the bad guy Biff acquiring a future sports almanac in the past and getting rich off it. There are only so many times you can do stuff like this and not seem like lame opportunists. Future Man does it in the first 15 minutes of the pilot, by having Josh say that a scenario envisioned by Wolf and Tiger is “… The Last Starfighter meets Quantum Leap,” and then it keeps doing it over and over. (There’s an entire generation of American improv performers that thinks this sort of thing — verbally pointing out that another character or performer is referencing something, the second after they reference it — is hilarious. It’s not, and it needs to stop.)

There are some decent modifications and riffs along the way, such as a mislaid iPhone that’s developed by a 1960s African-American student into a “BlackApple,” or “blapple” (incidentally one-upping the hero’s cultural appropriation of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk). But it’s not enough to quell the suspicion that the Rogen-Goldberg brand name is being affixed to substandard work: derivatives of derivatives. Films like Pineapple Express and This Is the End were problematic in both the aesthetic and political senses of the term, but they also had an anarchic, even explosive energy. They compelled the wary respect that one might give to a string of firecrackers or a bear trap. Future Man would need fire or teeth for that, and it has neither.

Future Man Is a Bawdy, Tiresome Riff on Sci-Fi Classics