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In referential narratives, there’s a point where a nod to popular culture becomes so obvious the writers feel the need to specifically acknowledge it. “Community” consistently did this well, crafting individual episodes around known films or TV shows, like “A Fistful of Paintballs” or “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux,” and naming their episodes after the homages (if not directly announcing them in the narrative). But those were one-off spoofs of form as much as function, featuring stylistic touches that served as a tip of the hat to the filmmakers. They were quickly forgotten as the long-term story moved on to another target the next episode.
“The Orville” is perhaps a more accurate comparison for “Future Man,” given both shows are taking a premise made famous decades prior and repurposing it for their own benefit. Seth MacFarlane’s Fox series has failed spectacularly in bluntly copying “Star Trek,” missing both the motivation, tone, and spirit of Gene Roddenberry’s original work, while making his show look almost exactly like it. “Future Man” more successfully and less egregiously cops from “The Last Starfighter,” and while its constant admission of borrowing from popular films — like “The Terminator” and “Back to the Future” — can be endearingly meta as a piece of entertainment, it can also grow a bit boring when it relies on too many references.
A good example of the “love it or hate it” meta-comedy arrives right off the bat: Josh Hutcherson stars as Josh Futterman, a name that sounds a lot like a lazy CIA alias for the actor, as well as the titular “Future Man,” Josh’s character name in his favorite video game. By day, Futterman is a janitor at a research laboratory. He lives with his parents, has little ambition for the future, and loves to escape his mundane reality by playing a futuristic shoot-em-up game about a post-apocalyptic future.
That’s how he spends his nights, and when we meet Josh, he’s stuck on a high level that everyone claims cannot be beaten. Even his friends at the electronics store think the game is impossible to win. But guess what? Josh beats it, and as soon as he does, two characters from the game appear in his bedroom and recruit him to fight for their cause.
Tiger (Eliza Coupe) and Wolf (Derek Wilson) tell Josh the game is a recruitment tool sent back in time to find the one person who can save the world. That’s him. He’s the Future Man — the same character he’s been playing as in the video game, and the man who’s now expected to travel through time with these freedom fighters to prevent the end of humanity.
The only problem: Josh isn’t his character. In real life, he can’t do what he did in the game — a rude awakening for the hard-assed Tiger and Wolf. What follows is a series of cultural differences, mission complications, and more movie references. Tiger and Wolf come from a future that’s ravaged by war: They eat rats. They kill at will. They are soldiers and only soldiers. So they don’t understand why it’s wrong to kill someone for their clothes or awkward to walk the streets covered in blood.
Some of these jokes work. After all, they’re the basis of countless fish-out-of-water time travel movies (from “Back to the Future” to “Blast From the Past”). Others are a bit tired or forced, and it can feel like the fights and f-bombs are just fresh dressing for old jokes. But the series improves as it settles in and the characters develop beyond their associations. Coupe, in particular, is great. She’s made for the role of a take-no-shit warrior, and she’s thankfully more than a slow-burn romantic partner for Josh. She’s funny, sharp, unflinching, and Coupe hits the notes as well as expected.
Even after the series finds its own voice, there’s nothing particularly fresh beyond the cast (shout-out to “Man Seeking Woman’s” Britt Lower and the always welcome Ed Begley Jr.). Produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and directed by the duo, as well (for its first handful of episodes), “Future Man” is escapism through and through, but all those references can sometimes work against it. They remind audiences of what came before and invite a comparison that rarely works in the series’ favor.
In the first episode alone, “Future Man” directly or indirectly references “The Last Starfighter” (see: premise), “Quantum Leap” (see: time travel), and “Back to the Future” (see: ’60s era meeting of the folks, though the real connection hits home in Episode 2). Is “Future Man” better than those movies? No. Does it work hard enough to create something new off of those filmmakers’ creativity? Usually, yeah.
The acknowledgement of, “Hey, yeah, we know this is almost exactly like that other more famous thing,” is meant to deflate criticism; by acknowledging the parallels between a classic film or TV show, the series is agreeing with anyone who thinks it’s a rip-off, copycat, or another form of creative theft. But then each audience member has to decide for themselves if that’s OK. Does the show concede the similarities and then create something new from them, or does it fail to differentiate itself enough from the original property?
By Episode 7 (the last given to critics in advance), the show’s characters stand out as much for who they are and what they’ve done as for how much they remind us of former favorites. (Hutcherson lacks the endearing exasperation of Michael J. Fox, but still feels very much like the hot, scruffy, 21st-century version of Marty McFly.) If that nagging feeling persists, then “Future Man” isn’t for you. But if you’re one to be won over by knowingly nostalgic nods livened up by vulgarities and violence — not to mention the always addictive presence of Coupe — this Hulu series is likely a fine, fun distraction for the present.
“Future Man” Season 1 premieres Tuesday, November 14 exclusively on Hulu.