2020-05-07 Print

WME to Lay Off and Furlough 20 Percent of Staff Amid Coronavirus Crisis

by Kim Masters and Mia Galuppo
THR 100 List 2017 - Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell - New - H 2017
Miller Mobley

As the novel coronavirus pandemic keeps upending the entertainment industry, with cost-cutting measures enacted and business models retooled, WME said Thursday it will lay off or furlough 20 percent of its workforce.

“WME is reducing its workforce by approximately 20% as a result of COVID-19’s impact on our business. We appreciate the contributions of our former colleagues, and out of respect for their privacy, we will not be commenting on the status of specific employees," an agency spokesperson said. "While we are making these difficult decisions now to safeguard our business, we believe in the resilience of our team and our industry.”

Endeavor executive chairman Patrick Whitesell is said to be now taking on a more hands-on role in overseeing WME, sources say. Whitesell, an affable counterpoint to high-voltage CEO Ari Emanuel, is tasked with calming waters roiled by the agency’s failed IPO last fall, followed by the unforeseeable crisis of the pandemic.

Partners who had long been hoping to land a rich payday with the IPO, or at least a consolation prize after it was pulled, are now seeing that dream die as Endeavor grapples with heavy debt and a diversified business reliant in large measure on live events that are indefinitely postponed or canceled.

On April 27 — days after Endeavor announced that one-third of the company's 7,500 staffers across holdings would be affected by the cost-cutting measures — Moody's Investors Service downgraded Endeavor, changing its outlook from “stable” to “negative.” Moody’s said the company has enough liquidity short-term but its position “is projected to deteriorate until the impact of the coronavirus subsides.” Previously, S&P Global had downgraded the firm to junk-bond status with analysts Jing Li and Emile J. Courtney saying that “the significant drop in revenue in 2020 could potentially result in unsustainable capital structure.”

Observers believe majority owner Silver Lake Partners has no choice but to help Endeavor weather the storm, cutting staff and possibly shedding assets. Last April, Endeavor closed the acquisition of NeuLion Inc. in a deal valued at about $250 million, and folded it into Endeavor Streaming. But even before the pandemic shut down much of Endeavor's business, the company was exploring a sale of all or part of that asset.

In 2012, with a major investment from private equity firm Silver Lake Partners, Emanuel and Whitesell set out to build an entertainment powerhouse. They acquired IMG for a rich $2.3 billion, as well as Professional Bull Riders, Miss Universe and a stake in Ultimate Fighting Championship. Rebranding as Endeavor in 2017, Emanuel was named CEO with Whitesell taking on the role of executive chairman.

In the past year, Endeavor has faced a bitter battle with the Writers Guild of America, as well as the postponed IPO in September, which shone a spotlight on the company's $4.6 billion in debt and revealed that Emanuel and Whitesell had each sold equity positions worth $165 million in 2017. The hope had been that the public offering would raise as much as $600 million that would be used, in part, to pay down debt.

While WME is preparing for particularly deep cuts, all of the major Hollywood talent agencies have enacted cost-cutting measures as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to cripple the industry. Earlier this week, UTA began furloughs, which largely affected the agency's assistants. Paradigm laid off an estimated 200 staffers in late March and reduced the payroll due to the pandemic, while ICM has let go of support staff and CAA has implemented temporary pay reductions.

In early March, Endeavor laid off 250 staffers in non-essential areas, while Emanuel and Whitesell gave up their annual salaries.

What's Driving ViacomCBS Stock to Jump?

by Georg Szalai and Etan Vlessing
Trevor Noah, CEO of Viacom Robert M. Bakish and Sherri Redstone attend as  ViacomCBS Inc. - Getty -H 2020
John Lamparski/Getty Images

Since the ViacomCBS recombination closed in December, the company's stock has often struggled amid Wall Street doubts that the merger can create much value given the secular challenges the industry has faced. And that was before the novel coronavirus pandemic.

But shares in ViacomCBS surged Thursday to close just over 10 percent higher than the day's opening price (up $1.54 to $16.42), after earlier trading as much as 17.5 percent higher.

The leap in stock price came despite the company reporting, before the market open, a 6 percent revenue and 22 percent adjusted net earnings drop for the first quarter, with advertising revenue down 19 percent and an even bigger pandemic-driven ad hit expected in the current second quarter.

So what happened? ViacomCBS shares closed Thursday following the announcement of the first-quarter earnings and an expanded distribution deal with Google's YouTube.

The combination of better-than-expected first-quarter financials; a newly announced expanded distribution deal with YouTube that will bring channels like MTV, BET, Comedy Central, TV Land and Nickelodeon to its YouTube TV service; and the streaming boom caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic all impressed investors (Viacom said April was its streaming platforms' "best month" ever).

On Thursday's earnings conference call, ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish described the latest results and the YouTube deal as proof that the Viacom-CBS recombination — which now includes the CBS network, the MTV and Nickelodeon cable channels, the Pluto ad-supported streamer and Paramount Pictures — was bearing fruit.

Wall Street observers took note of the stock's big gain Thursday and shared their latest thoughts on the company's current performance and future outlook.

"The expanded pact with YouTube, which for the first time includes Viacom’s legacy channels, was an unexpected welcome development," CFRA Research analyst Tuna Amobi tells THR. "Also, the streaming stats, and guidance, were quite strong, apparently benefiting from a spike in demand and user engagement in the wake of COVID-19."

Wolfe Research analyst John Janedis, who has been more bullish on ViacomCBS than others on the Street and has had an "outperform" rating on the stock, in a report noted that there has been investor concern about the attractiveness of the firm's networks for distributors and its ability to strike broad-based carriage deals with them.

"ViacomCBS delivered a solid beat across the board, and when combined with this morning’s long-awaited deal with YouTube, part of the overhang on the distribution narrative should be lifted," Janedis concluded after the earnings update.

But Dish Networks chairman Charlie Ergen wasn't as convinced of ViacomCBS' attractiveness for distributors when he discussed his own carriage agreement with the conglomerate, which is up for renegotiation later this year.

"From a ratings perspective or viewership perspective, [ViacomCBS has] had declines over the last several years. A lot of their investment has gone into Pluto, and that's free. ... There's a reality out there of where the market is. And it's probably not the same as in years past," Ergen said Wednesday during his own analyst call.

At the same time, UBS analyst John Hodulik highlighted "stronger cost containment" and said the Youtube TV deal came "earlier than expected," estimating that it covers 2 to 3 percent of U.S pay TV subscribers. Evercore ISI's Vijay Jayant called the YouTube news "a nice earnings surprise."

"YouTubeTV further stuffs the bird," Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger echoed in the title of his Thursday report. "First-quarter results were better than feared," he explained. "Of course, that's before the pandemic decimated advertising and cord-cutting. But none of that matters today. The important news is YouTube TV adding 14 Viacom cable networks. ... This brings ViacomCBS closer to an equivalent distribution footprint as its peers, although it is still less represented on or absent from some important services, notably Hulu Live."

Also on the streaming front, ViacomCBS' CBS All Access online platform said Wednesday it will add around 100 movies from Paramount Pictures’ library, including classics like The Godfather, Terms of Endearment and An Inconvenient Truth, as the media player continues to spread its catalog of IP across ViacomCBS properties. 

But Bernstein's Juenger continues to have doubts about ViacomCBS, which he rates at "underperform," and its outlook, writing: "Investors will rightly question the terms. We certainly expect this unexpected news to reset the stock at a new, higher level — but from there it still faces the same fierce structural headwinds on viewership and subscribers as everybody else."

Cowen & Co. analyst Doug Creutz similarly had a good-news, bad-news takeaway. "The company is seeing strong domestic streaming and digital revenue trends as a result of shelter in place," he wrote in a report maintaining his "market perform" rating on the stock. "However, the company remains significantly exposed to the challenging advertising environment."

'Saturday Night Live' Sets At-Home Season Finale

by Rick Porter
Third 'SNL' At-Home Episode to Serve as Season Finale | THR News

Saturday Night Live is staying home one more time this season.

NBC has set a third SNL at Home episode for May 9, which will be the 18th of the season and serve as the finale for season 45. There's no word yet on a host or musical guest.

Since the coronavirus pandemic shut down production on hundreds of TV and movie projects, Saturday Night Live has aired two episodes with castmembers all filming sketches at their homes. Tom Hanks opened the first show April 11, and Brad Pitt appeared as Dr. Anthony Fauci (and himself) to begin the April 25 show.

SNL followed the lead of its late night counterparts in adapting to remote production, and its first episode back was among the highest-rated of the season. It pulled in 6.7 million same-day viewers — trailing only an Eddie Murphy-hosted episode in December.

The April 25 edition declined some to 6.05 million viewers, slightly below the show's same-day season average. The episode had markedly higher production values, with more and better graphics and costumes as the show's crew got more accustomed to remote production.

The SNL at Home episodes have also featured cameos by Adam Sandler, Alec Baldwin (who phoned in as President Donald Trump during "Weekend Update" on April 11), Charles Barkley, Bill Hader, Paul Rudd, Jason Sudeikis and Fred Armisen. A tribute to the show's late music producer, Hal Willner, on April 11 also included John Mulaney, Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Molly Shannon, Ana Gasteyer and Rachel Dratch.

Watch a promo for the finale, below.

ABC Revives 'Wonderful World of Disney' Banner for Movie Series

by Rick Porter
Moana - Photofest Still - H 2019
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Photofest

ABC is bringing back its Wonderful World of Disney banner for a series of theatrical movies that will air on the network.

The four films will run on Wednesday nights for four weeks beginning May 20. ABC is following in the footsteps of CBS, which started its own Sunday movie night on May 3 with Raiders of the Lost Ark. (All of the films in CBS' five-week series are from its ViacomCBS sibling Paramount Pictures.)

Disney Animation's Moana will lead off the series on May 20, followed by Marvel's Thor: The Dark World on May 27, Pixar's Up on June 3 and Disney Animation's Big Hero 6 on June 10. All four are also available on the Disney+ streaming platform.

The movies will help bridge the gap between the end of the September-to-May season and the summer lineup. Starting with Thor: The Dark World, the pics will lead into the final season of Agents of SHIELD, which premieres May 27.

ABC won't have the NBA Finals to air in June, as the league is still on hold due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The network is rolling out its lineup of game shows earlier than usual to help fill that hole. 

Movie nights were long a staple of broadcast schedules, but were gradually eliminated in the 1990s and 2000s as premium cable became the primary outlet for TV premieres of theatrical films. Prior to this month, ABC was the last broadcaster to have a regularly scheduled movie night. That was back in the 2007-08 season, when it aired films in the low-traffic environment of Saturday night.

CBS saw decent returns from its showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark on Sunday, averaging about 5.3 million viewers.

'Love in the Time of Corona' Comedy Series Set at Freeform

by Lesley Goldberg
Joanna Johnson- Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Freeform

Freeform is the latest network to lean into writing the coronavirus-inspired scripted programming.

The Disney-owned basic cable network has handed out a straight-to-series order to the romantic comedy Love in the Time of Corona.

The four-part limited series, which hails from Joanna Johnson (Freeform's Good Trouble, The Fosters), is described as a funny and hopeful look at the search for love, sex and connection during this unprecedented time of social distancing. The comedy will premiere in August and will be filmed using remote technologies while using talents' real living spaces as the backdrop for the stories.

Love in the Time of Corona will follow several interwoven stories with an ensemble of characters who are sheltering in their homes, some of whom are wondering if a hookup with a roommate can ever be casual, while another is kicking herself for deciding to isolate with an ex. It is a show that takes a fresh look at love that knows no bounds. Anonymous Content's Robyn Meisinger also executive produces.

"This is the perfect show for a generation who is learning to love and be loved in a time when the entire world is telling them to stay 6 feet apart,” Lauren Corrao, executive vp programming and development at Freeform, said Thursday in a statement. “Although the constraints have been difficult during this time, immense creativity has flourished and we could not be more grateful that Joanna brought this series to Freeform.”

Love in the Time of Corona is the second scripted series to be greenlit that explores what life is like amid the novel coronavirus, as much of the country continues to shelter at home. Netflix late last month became the first outlet to greenlight a scripted series — the episodic anthology Social Distance, from Jenji Kohan — whose entire premise is inspired by our current landscape. That effort, too, will be produced remotely.

"Love is a basic and central need,” said creator and executive producer Johnson. “Finding it in the time of corona may pose unique challenges, but it won’t stop us from forging great love stories, inspiring grand romantic gestures and profound acts of kindness.”

The news comes as Freeform is in the midst of an executive changeover as Disney is interviewing candidates to take over for outgoing network president Tom Ascheim, who will depart this summer for a job at WarnerMedia.

Scribes across the creative community have been grappling with whether or not to write the novel coronavirus pandemic into scripted series. Only two — Love in the Time of Corona and Social Distance — will lean directly into it as the basis for an entire series.

'National Treasure' TV Series in the Works for Disney+

by Lesley Goldberg
National Treasure - Photofest still - H 2020
Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest

Jerry Bruckheimer is ready to go on a new National Treasure adventure.

The prolific producer has revealed that he is prepping a TV series based on the action-adventure film franchise for the streamer Disney+ with an entirely new cast attached.

"We’re certainly working on one [National Treasure] for streaming and we're working on one for the big screen. Hopefully, they’ll both come together and we’ll bring you another National Treasure, but they’re both very active. … The one for Disney+ is a much younger cast. It’s the same concept but a young cast. The one for theatrical would be the same cast," Bruckheimer told Collider in an interview to promote his forthcoming Starz series, Hightown.

Bruckheimer produced both the 2004 original feature and its 2007 follow-up, National Treasure: Book of Secrets. The first pic grossed more than $347 million worldwide, with the sequel collecting nearly $460 million.

While representatives for Disney+ declined comment on the National Treasure TV series, Bruckheimer told Collider that the pilot script and outline of future episodes have already been completed. (The script for the third feature, he noted, is currently being written.)

Disney produced both National Treasure films and owns the rights to the franchise. Disney+ has been leaning hard into the company's massive vault of IP with new takes for its subscription platform. In addition to multiple Star Wars and Marvel feature film offshoots, Disney+ is also reviving popular titles including The Mighty Ducks, Turner & Hooch, Escape to Witch Mountain, The Sandlot and Lizzie McGuire. An updated take on High School Musical helped launch the streamer and scored an early season two renewal.

David Ayer to Direct Thriller 'Six Years' for Netflix

by Aaron Couch
David Ayer Bright Premiere - Getty - H 2019
Mike Marsland/WireImage

Filmmaker David Ayer has found a new project to tackle for Netflix: He will write and direct an adaptation of the novel Six Years for the streaming service, The Hollywood Reporter has confirmed. 

The 2013 book, by international best-selling author Harlan Coben, centers on a man who, six years after a breakup with the love of his life, attends the funeral of the man his former love went on to marry. He's surprised to see that the woman at the funeral is not the person he once was involved with, a revelation that sets him on a path to unravel the mystery of her identity and of his own memory.

Ayer previously directed Bright for Netflix, and is producing its sequel, to be directed by Louis Leterrier. He has already shot his next project, the Shia LaBeouf crime thriller The Tax Collector.

Ayer, who is repped by WME, will produce Six Years with Chris Long via their Cedar Park banner.

Roku Streaming Rises Amid Pandemic as Active Users Grow to 39.8 Million

by Natalie Jarvey
Roku Channel - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Roku

Roku users are streaming more video programming during the shutdown.

The company, which makes set-top boxes and connected TVs, saw "an acceleration of growth" in both new accounts and streaming hours during the first quarter of the year. 

Active accounts grew by 38 percent to 39.8 million since the same period last year, and streaming hours rose by 80 percent year-over-year to 13.2 billion. "The pandemic associated stay-at-home orders and increased unemployment appear to have accelerated the shift from linear TV viewing to streaming during the past few weeks," the company wrote Thursday in its first-quarter shareholder letter. 

Despite the streaming growth, Roku has seen higher than normal advertising cancellations due to the industrywide pullback in ad budgets. Even so, the company, which withdrew its 2020 outlook, is forecasting that it will deliver year-over-year revenue growth for the year due in part to ad spend moving from traditional TV budgets. It is expecting a slower growth rate, however, and lower gross profit than originally expected. 

In response to the pandemic, Roku says it has taken steps to slow the rate of growth for its operating expenses ad capital expenditures. But, the company noted, "[o]ver the longer term, not only do we believe that the trends that we expect to define the streaming decade will remain intact, but changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic may even accelerate Roku's path to greater platform scale." 

All told, Roku grew revenue by 55 percent to $321 million, with platform revenue up by 73 percent. It had a net loss of 45 cents per share. Its stock was down 7 percent during after-hours trading on the Nasdaq. 

The TV Academy Was Smart to Ban Oscar Nominees From Emmys, But Should Go Further

by Scott Feinberg
Citizenfour, What Happened Miss Simone, Cartel Land, Strong Island and RBG- Photofest - Publicity - Split - H 2020
Photofest; Netflix; Photofest; Netflix; Photofest

With the line separating film from TV blurrier than ever, the TV Academy should be commended for taking steps to clarify the difference, as it did Thursday in announcing that, starting in March 2021, projects that have received an Oscar nomination will no longer be eligible for an Emmy nomination. In other words, the next set of Oscar nominees (currently scheduled to be announced next January) will be ineligible to join the first set of Emmy nominees announced after that (scheduled to be announced in July 2021).

In my opinion, however, the TV Academy did not go far enough.

At present, a project that screens in movie theaters for a week is eligible for Oscars and also, if it subsequently airs on TV, for Emmys, too (this has heretofore manifested itself almost exclusively with documentaries). However, a project that airs on TV before it screens in theaters is not eligible for Oscars (this order of events rarely happens because movie theaters don't like to show, and moviegoers don't like to pay for, things that were previously available for free).

But why is the TV Academy agreeable to accepting any project that entered another contest first? Rather than disqualifying from the Emmys only projects that have already received an Oscar nomination, it should disqualify from the Emmys any project that even went through the process of qualifying to receive an Oscar nomination — that project clearly wants to be seen as a film as much as one that was nominated.

And besides, why should a project that deserved an Oscar nomination but for inexplicable reasons didn't get one, such as 2017's Jane, be Emmy-eligible, but another project that deserved an Oscar nomination and did get one, such as 2017's Icarus, not be? Both were documentaries that received substantial theatrical releases before going on TV, and should therefore be regarded as films, period.

If there is to be anything distinguishing the Oscars from the Emmys, then creators will have to pick a lane for their projects at the outset. This would benefit all parties.

If a doc is required to receive a proper theatrical release and to risk being Emmy-ineligible in order to be Oscar-eligible, only the most outstanding docs would be entered for Oscars, as opposed to the hundreds that are currently submitted each year by creators who see no downside to throwing their hat in the ring. This would certainly be appreciated by the film Academy's doc branch members, who are charged with picking a shortlist and nominees, but almost none of whom have the time to watch anywhere close to all of the docs that are entered.

Moreover, projects that were truly made for TV — the medium the Emmys are supposed to celebrate — would have a much better shot at landing nominations at the Emmys, which recognizes docs in several categories. Creators and distributors can enter a doc for best documentary/nonfiction special (one-part or two-part docs selected by the large documentary peer group) or exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking (selected by a small jury on the basis of the creator's "expressed vision, compelling power of storytelling, artistry or innovation of craft, and the capacity to inform, transport, impact, enlighten, and create a moving and indelible work that elevates the art of documentary filmmaking"); if the exceptional merit jury feels a submitted doc does not meet all of its criteria, it kicks it back into the doc/nonfiction special pool. Additionally, docs are eligible in a number of other categories like nonfiction direction, writing, cinematography and sound mixing.

The rule change announced Thursday does little to discourage swimming in both lanes. Most creators and distributors would still prefer the prestige and profits that come with an Oscar nom over those that come with an Emmy nom, and will therefore risk losing their Emmy eligibility should their project be Oscar-nominated. Most projects, however, won't be, and those creators will then enter the Emmy race, too.

It is true that Thursday's rule change, had it been in place in recent years, would have rendered a number of recent best documentary feature Oscar nominees (and winners) turned Emmy nominees (and winners) ineligible for the latter. Consider the last five years...

In 2019, four of the five Oscar nominees received major Emmy recognition: Free Solo, which won the Oscar, won all seven Emmys for which it was nominated (which, oddly enough, did not include best doc/nonfiction special or exceptional merit); Oscar nominee RBG won the exceptional merit Emmy over a field that included fellow Oscar nominee Hale County This Morning, This Evening; and Oscar nominee Minding the Gap was nominated for the best doc/nonfiction special Emmy.

In 2018, Icarus, which won the Oscar, was nominated for best doc/nonfiction special; and Oscar nominee Strong Island won exceptional merit.

In 2017, O.J.: Made in America, which won the Oscar, was nominated for exceptional merit (alongside best documentary short Oscar winner The White Helmets); and Oscar nominee 13th was nominated for best doc/nonfiction special.

In 2016, Oscar nominee What Happened, Miss Simone? won best doc/nonfictional special; and Oscar nominee Cartel Land won exceptional merit over fellow Oscar nominee Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom.

And in 2015, Citizenfour, which won the Oscar, won exceptional merit; Oscar nominee Virunga was nominated for best doc/nonfiction special; and Oscar nominee Last Days in Vietnam was nominated for best nonfiction writing.

This level of overlap is patently ridiculous. A doc is either a film doc or a TV doc, not both — and, in 2020, the latter is no less prestigious than the former. If the two academies would like to remain relevant and at least somewhat delay the fate that former film Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and former TV Academy president Hayma Washington both told me last year they think is inevitable — a merging of the two academies — then they had better put even more daylight between them than Thursday's rule change does.

'Solar Opposites': TV Review

by Daniel Fienberg
Solar Opposites - S1 Episode 108 - Retrace-Your-Step-Alizer - HULU Publiciy- H 2020
Courtesy of Hulu

I don't want to exclusively compare Hulu's new animated comedy Solar Opposites to Adult Swim's Rick and Morty.

Sure, Solar Opposites hails from Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland and veteran Rick and Morty writer and producer Mike McMahan. Sure, it's a comparably cosmic series with comparably big science-fiction swings interspersed with comparably low-brow hijinks, featuring Roiland as the voice of one of the main characters. Sure, the characters all have asterisks (or rectums, depending on your level of coarseness) for pupils, a familiar Rick and Morty ocular flourish.

The simple reality is that fans of Rick and Morty are very likely to enjoy Solar Opposites, even as they're just as likely to criticize the first few episodes as not quite as good — a generally unfair comparison given that the first handful of Rick and Morty episodes also weren't as confident in Roiland and Dan Harmon's brand of lunacy as later episodes became.

But what about the show itself? What about audiences who have never seen, or dislike, Rick and Morty? Let's try to service them.

Solar Opposites is the story of a quartet of aliens from far-off Shlorp, forced to leave their planet ahead of an apocalyptic event. They crash-land into a suburban cul de sac, where at least to some degree they're accepted as a part of the local tapestry. The series takes place a year after their arrival.

Korvo (Roiland), scientifically minded and generally disgusted by humanity, and Terry (Thomas Middleditch), much less intellectually assured and much more enamored with Earth culture, spend most of their time tinkering with technology damaged in their crash and attempting to mind the Pupa, an adorably mobile yellow (when healthy) triangle with the potential to destroy the planet. Kids — but not necessarily Korvo and Terry's kids — Yumyulack (Sean Giambrone) and Jesse (Mary Mack) are attending high school and trying to fit in, a process that would go more smoothly if Yumyulack weren't constantly shrinking classmates and other grown-ups and storing them in a vast terrarium.

There's something pleasant about how premise-vague Solar Opposites is. They're aliens. They live on Earth. Occasionally they make a mess of things. The first handful of episodes are mostly stand-alone goofs playing off of how aliens might interpret and respond to various Earth oddities, including local elections, college life and a popular alien television creature named Funbucket Tadstockings. Sometimes these mini-adventures are very funny and other times they don't quite lock onto the satirical topic with enough edge.

Along the way, though, fans of TV animation will probably get a kick out of how hardcore Roiland and McMahan are going, especially for a premise that was originally developed at Fox. This definitely isn't for kids, starting with the liberal peppering of adult language and carrying through to violence that's cartoonish and gory enough to leave Rick and Morty, already a show with a reasonable amount of depicted viscera, in the rear-view. Heck, there's even some sex, all done within the bright, colorful goofiness of Roiland's style. Think adult anime content with a Fox Animation Domination aesthetic.

Adding energy throughout is a top-tier vocal cast. The core quartet, all very good, are augmented by a veritable who's-who of live-action comedy favorites like Ken Marino, Tiffany Haddish, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Natalie Morales, Jason Mantzoukas and Andy Daly, plus oddball dramatic co-stars like Christina Hendricks and Alfred Molina, plus the usual animation stalwarts like Maurice Lamarche and Phil Lamarr. And, for all that, the series' breakout character will probably be the generally silent Pupa, who has a Baby Yoda-like blend of cute and mysterious.

There's a shift or evolution that takes place in the second half of the initial eight-episode Solar Opposites run — a second season has already been ordered — that brings the show from fitfully promising to intriguing and ambitious in its own right. The early episodes have certain limited windows of continuity or running gags, things like Terry's jokey t-shirts or Korvo's rants about human stupidity at the end of the credit sequence, but the show becomes increasingly serialized; things that seem like they might be throw-away become unexpectedly important.

The sixth episode is particularly provocative, delving into the gender roles in the series. Are Terry and Korvo a same-sex couple or does Shlorp not have an Earth-like understanding of gender? And if Terry and Korvo aren't necessarily locked into binary genders, why does Yumyulack present with typically masculine traits and Jesse as typically feminine? The episode, featuring a robot sitcom wife, is smart and, as Jesse enthusiastically puts it, proves that "Gender politics is fun!"

Somehow the seventh episode is even better and the eighth episode, probably the most Rick and Morty-esque of the group, is an amusing and trippy way to wrap the season and suggest an optimistic direction forward.

There's stuff to like even in those early episodes, whether it's the glee of the untethered swearing and violence or an eclectic list of references that go as broad as the frequent chiding of Hulu and as weirdly specific as nods to Green Room or eXistenZ. It's the second half that points to Solar Opposites becoming a show I want to watch completely on its own merits and not just as a parallel attraction to Rick and Morty.

Voice cast: Justin Roiland, Thomas Middleditch, Sean Giambrone, Mary Mack
Creators: Justin Roiland, Mike McMahan
Premieres: Friday (Hulu)