There's a process that's repeated multiple times when watching the new Hulu comedy Future Man.
First, you get notice a character or beat that feels incredibly familiar and you think, "Man, this show is totally ripping off… [Insert The Last Starfighter or Terminator or Back to the Future]."
Then, just as you're about to be frustrated, Future Man will make explicit reference to the thing being mimicked or echoed, not as a wink or nudge but as a, "Yes, we know what we're doing and we know that you know" acknowledgement.
Is it clever and knowing or is it obvious and pandering? The correct answer is probably, "Yes. All of those things."
Future Man, premiering Nov. 14, is a lot of things, some of them good.
Created by Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir (Sausage Party) and directed in early installments by executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Future Man is the story of Josh Futturman (Josh Hutcherson), janitor at a medical research facility dedicated to finding a cure for herpes. Josh lives with his parents (Ed Begley Jr. and the late Glenne Headly), has no professional mobility and a hopeless crush on the out-of-his-league Jeri (Britt Lower). Josh's great achievement is that he's an expert at Biotic Wars, a video game so unbeatable that everybody else has stopped playing it. It's only when Josh conquers the game that he discovers that it was actually a test sent from the future and his excellence makes him the only person capable of leading a rag-tag resistance army and preventing an apocalypse. Helping Josh on a time-traveling quest are world-weary soldiers Tiger (Eliza Coupe) and Wolf (Derek Wilson), desensitized killing machines Josh thought were merely video game characters.
Over the seven episodes sent to critics, Josh and his guards travel backward and forward in time, creating paradoxes, debating the ethics of killing Baby Hitler (and other non-Hitler villains) and altering the course of humanity, relying at least as much on Josh's knowledge of genre cinema as his gaming skills.
As storytellers, Rogen and Goldberg are not subtle, but they're committed to the broad needs of each project and Future Man embraces its childish spirit. It's not enough to have Keith David as the doctor working on the herpes cure, but he's given a giant herpes sore on his lip. A masturbation scene has to use ejaculate for a slimy comic point. An instance of food poisoning has to be projectile. The excesses extend to the episode titles — I admit to a chuckle at "Herpe: Fully Loaded" — and to the coarse dialogue and also to the gaming-inspired action, which is impressive by half-hour comedy silly stunt standards.
Future Man is proudly puerile and in the early episodes, the lack of necessary grounding elements often make the broad jokes play as grating. Hutcherson, once treated by Hollywood as a heartthrob during the Hunger Games franchise, isn't an instantly successful choice for an Everyman lead and the push to judge Josh as pathetic reads as disingenuous and unsympathetic. As episodes progress, Hutcherson gets more comfortable and the character's lack of direction is better spelled out and the show improves around him.
The show grows with Coupe's and Wilson's performances as futuristic warriors, as characters raised in miserable dystopia find their mettle tested by the opportunities of the freer past. In a fashion that befits the tone of the show, these opportunities include the nebulousness of hope and the concreteness of blow jobs. Coupe should have been positioned for a breakout after Happy Endings, but since then this is the best anybody has utilized her hard edges and gift for sarcasm that borders on hostile, plus she avoids cliches when Tiger starts experiencing vulnerability. Wilson is more of a surprise, because in the first few episodes Wolf is just a grunting caricature and I worried he might be a cast weak link. Instead, Wolf's macho bluster makes it funnier when he takes interest in more sensitive pursuits.
The show also benefits from a great supporting cast, led by cold sore-battling David and Lower, who is becoming a master of holding her own in shows otherwise awash in testosterone. Future Man continues the career renaissance for roly-poly bearded Haley Joel Osment and proves the value, however limited the screen time, delivered by Begley and, sadly, Headly, in her final role.
A pilot that gets its biggest reaction from a shot of semen shows signs of progressing into a more varied show, if not always a more mature show, by the end of the episodes I've seen. There's actual melancholy in one conversation about Marty McFly's experience at the end of Back to the Future and then there's pure, Hollywood-loving laughs in a visit to the high-tech house of a legendary Hollywood director. What starts off loud and obnoxious gradually finds ways to build character moments around the spurting bodily fluids and profanities.
Cast: Josh Hutcherson, Eliza Coupe, Derek Wilson, Ed Begley Jr., Glenne Headly, Haley Joel Osment, Britt Lower, Keith David
Creators: Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir
Showrunner: Ben Karlin
All episodes premiere on Hulu on Tuesday, Nov. 14.