Just a year or two ago, Hulu seemed to be the class act among the streaming services, thanks to its combination of current domestic series and such imports as Misfits, Prisoners Of War, and Line Of Fire. But in broadcast entertainment, “class act” and “cultural buzz” are often mutually exclusive categories. In just six months, Netflix has rolled out House Of Cards, Orange Is The New Black, and the fourth season of Arrested Development, and in the process, they’ve moved the goalposts: It’s becoming increasingly accepted that the leader in online TV is whoever gets out the most attention for putting out original series that, in terms of production values and the talent involved, could pass muster on a traditional broadcast network. As of a few days ago, Hulu wasn’t in this game: It had been an uneventful 12 months since they had launched a new series of their own, the Richard Linklater-Speed Levitch travel-and-babble show Up To Speed. Now, with the notably unnoteworthy cartoon superhero spoof The Awesomes, which premiered last Thursday, and Quickdraw, which goes up today, they’ve doubled their output for the year. Which makes it kind of amazing that they’re still not in the game.
Not that the western parody Quickdraw is devoid of laughs; the pilot probably has more of either than Up To Speed or The Awesomes combined. Set in a lawless Kansas town in 1875, it’s the creation of its star, John Lehr, who previously worked on the improvisation-style TBS sitcom 10 Items Or Less. Lehr plays the new sheriff in town, John Henry Hoyle, an uptight, decidedly unmacho detective whose ambition is to bring forensic science to the untamed West. (He was #327 in his class at Harvard.) In the opening scene, Sheriff Hoyle and his deputy Eli (Nick Brown) are examining a mangled pile of bloody flesh and trying to determine what happened here. When the dead man’s widow (Tasha Ames) tries to explain that she can tell them exactly what happened here, because she saw it all, Hoyle shushes her. He doesn’t want his perceptions contaminated by some half-cocked eyewitness account: “I want science to tell me what actually happened!”
As Hoyle, Lehr delivers his pedantic lines in a measured, strangulated voice. H sounds as if he were trying to sound like James Stewart in an Anthony Mann western, but was forced to settle for something closer to Adam West stifling a hiccup. He’s even pedantic, and a trace schoolmarmish, when he tries to flirt with the local Miss Kitty, Honey (Allison Dunbar), who stares at him with bored contempt. When she rejects his invitation to “take a picnic up to the hanging tree,” because he’s already a paying customer and she suspects him of trying to talk her into a freebie, he explains, “I would very much like to get to know, not just the vagina, but the heart, and the brain, of you.” As her eyes glaze over even more, which is some feat, she tells him that he’s more like a woman than any man she’s ever met. He chooses to take it as a compliment.
The two main sources of humor in the pilot are Hoyle’s failure to match up to the square-jawed, manly stereotype of the two-fisted, man-of-few-words cowboy hero, and the gross-out comedy of his messing around with dead bodies. (At one point, he yanks something nasty out of a corpse and pops it into his mouth.) The former was a staple of actual westerns, like Destry Rides Again, even before people started making fun of westerns for being piles of inert, discarded clichés. That means that Lehr and company have to push it, and everything else, to a cartoonish extreme: The locals don’t just snicker at the city slicker lawman, they have a death pool going, placing bets on how many days until he croaks. (Deeply hurt, Hoyle yells at the barroom regulars, “You can forget about the barbecue at my place on Sunday!” “Nobody was coming to your barbecue,” Honey yawns. “There were a lot of maybes!” he huffs.) The autopsy scenes include Bob Clendenin as Vernon, the local undertaker. He gets to deliver a classic Bob Clendenin line when Hoyle encourages him to change his official title to “Medical Examiner,” telling him that people like medical examiners, and Vernon, a faint trace of hope in his eyes, asks if, when he says “people,” he’s including women.
The best you can say about the premiere episode of Quickdraw is that a lot of it is funny, which, make no mistake, is a supremely desirable thing in a comedy. The worst thing that can be said about it may be that, at 23 minutes, it feels overextended in a way that will make the tenderhearted afraid to ever look at the show again, for fear of seeing the cast straining and sweating blood to get anything more out of this concept. Everything about the show stays on a sketch-comedy level, an impression that’s reinforced by the fact that the sets and costumes look as if they’d been smuggled out the back door of a Chuck E. Cheese’s, and the CSI-gunslinger shtick isn’t insane or surreal enough to carry a series by itself. (The title isn’t intended sarcastically; it turns out that Hoyle really is a crack shot who can take care of himself when facing down multiple badmen. He is dismayed to learn that this earns him more respect from the townspeople than his big ol’ brain or metrosexual courting technique. I do wonder if Lehr has seen enough westerns to know that the seemingly unthreatening, book-learned tenderfoot who turns into Annie Oakley crossed with the Terminator when riled is as much of a cliché of the genre as the tenderfoot who pees his pants at the first hint of danger.)
Netflix has surprised and impressed people by showing that they can make shows that look as if they might be on HBO or Showtime but that, for some reason, aren’t. A rival like Hulu might best demonstrate some creative muscle and set itself apart by trying to figure out how to make shows that look like nothing on broadcast TV. But Hulu’s original shows look like Funny Or Die skits, or like some of the shows from the early days of “original programming” on HBO and Showtime, which had similarly tinny production values, modest ambitious, and overreliance on the idea that, hey, at least it’s something different. I can’t tell from The Awesomes and Quickdraw what Hulu is hoping to achieve with its original programming, but if the company’s press department is looking for a tag line to slap on posters in the subway, they might consider, “Not since Steambath and Washingtoon…”