When the plot of a sci-fi comedy kicks into gear when a couple of time-traveling warriors from the future land in a twentysomething’s bedroom at the exact instant he orgasms during masturbation, you know nobody’s shooting for highbrow laughs.
And that’s just one of many gross-out gags that define Future Man, a fitfully funny riff on time travel and video game culture that finds its apotheosis in a couple of battle-hardened soldiers from 155 years into the future shouting out comical descriptions of every fight move they execute. “Headshot!” “Table throw!” “Crystal antler shield!” It’s all over-the-top camp silliness, but like any number of intentionally dumb series, there are some good laughs buried among the juvenile obsessions with obscenity, bodily fluids, and self-consciously “edgy” material on race, gender, and more. The show would fit right at home alongside Adult Swim live-action comedies like Eagleheart or Neon Joe: Werewolf Hunter, though Future Man has yet to nail the so-stupid-it’s-smart tone of those programs.
The first half of its debut season struggles to balance the ridiculous and the repellant, relying too much on more-is-more outrageousness to carry it through. The story follows Josh Futturman (The Hunger Games’ Josh Hutcherson), a going-nowhere guy who lives at home with his too-supportive parents (Ed Begley Jr. and the late Glenne Headly) and works as a janitor at a research facility where a kindly scientist with a perpetual cold sore (Keith David) is searching for a cure to herpes. (Yes, it’s unfortunately a key plot point.) All his free time is spent playing Biotic Wars, a supposedly unbeatable first-person shooter set in the future. When Josh manages to win it one night, the two main characters from the game suddenly appear in his room, explaining that they’re from the future, and Biotic Wars is no game—it’s a real depiction of the world’s troubled destiny, and they used it as a recruitment tool to find humanity’s savior. Josh has to accompany them as they travel through time to take out his boss, whose cure for herpes is the thing that destroys the world. If you’re thinking, “Hey, that sounds like the plot of The Last Starfighter with a bit of Back To The Future thrown in,” then you and Josh Futturman are on the same page.
Most of the humor that lands stems from the fish-out-of-water absurdity of watching two video-game-style warriors, Tiger and Wolf (Eliza Coupe and Derek Wilson, both committing fully to this nonsense), come to life in the present day—and their frustration when they realize their “savior” is just some hapless nerd. “You’re a real renaissance janitor,” someone says to Josh at one point. He grimaces: “It feels like you could’ve just said ‘man.’” Everything from the soldiers’ inability to make basic conversation to their attempts at blending in is played for laughs, not a few of them of the cheap variety. (There’s an episode whose subplot revolves around one of the characters learning about blowjobs, though the hackiest bit might be when Wolf interprets the kitchen phrase “beat the eggs” too literally.)
The hit-to-miss ratio of the gags is steady though uneven—and gets worse the more the show returns to its ongoing genitalia obsession—but at its best, the series can engage in the sharp analysis of pop-culture tropes seen in a show like Spaced. After returning to the present following a trip back in time, there’s a witty analysis of how much Back To The Future underplayed the difficulty involved in a time-traveler trying to fake their way through an entire life they haven’t lived. And when the show does manage to sneak in a subtle joke, it’s usually a good one, as in naming the rare substance required for time travel “Cameronium.” Later episodes further complicate the narrative in potentially intriguing ways, though any real challenges to our siding with the three main characters tend to be resolved by the end of the respective installment.
Part of the problem is that the show often makes Josh such a willfully obtuse drip, it’s hard to see why his point of view is the right one, despite Future Man clearly pushing him as the moral arbiter of the group. Imagine a version of Terminator 2 wherein obvious and effective means of putting a stop to Cyberdyne Systems are continually thwarted by John Connor, and you have some idea of the frustrating trap in which the series routinely finds itself. The show treats all of the sci-fi sources of its gags with straight-faced seriousness, the better to play up the humor; it’d be refreshing if it did the same with its world-in-the-balance narrative, rather than make one man’s aversion to violence the reason a plan to save all of humankind fails. One would think stopping a global apocalypse might supersede Josh’s dislike of hurting anyone.
Still, there’s a place for gleefully ludicrous nonsense like Future Man. It has potential to grow into a smarter version of itself, nailing the flamboyant insanity while not stooping to tired potty humor. Eliza Coupe is the standout, managing to strike a perfect comic balance between Tiger as both over-the-top super-soldier and nonplussed stranger in a strange land. Hulu is presumably hoping to capture some of that target demo of Rick And Morty fans with this show, and Coupe’s pitch-perfect warrior performance is the best calling card for reeling in curious viewers. If it figures out the proper tone and blend of stupid-smart jokes with its game cast, the series could potentially travel forward to a time when it becomes a great sci-fi comedy.