In a stroke of cosmic irony, the problem with Future Man, a show about time travel, is that it’s arrived at the wrong time.
It should say enough about Future Man that the episode in which cross-dressing is played as an extended sight gag comes in the same episode as a full parody of the famously homoerotic Top Gun volleyball scene and bro culture in general. There’s a level to which the show is progressive — and truly funny! — but that self-awareness only extends to whichever meme is being lampooned in that moment. Otherwise, the jokes, which might have seemed ill-advised but benign as little as a year ago, now feel woefully mistimed. Do we really need more dicks right now?
The show stars Josh Hutcherson as Josh Futterman, a janitor with a penchant for video games who gets drawn into a scheme to save the world by Tiger (Eliza Coupe) and Wolf (Derek Wilson), a couple of time-traveling warriors. Just as it seems like the premise is starting to ape The Last Starfighter, the show itself acknowledges it through Josh, who asks if they’re just stringing him along. If you’re also the kind of person who’d stop a life or death situation cold to spout off a couple of pop culture references, then this show will be right on your wavelength. If not, you may want to turn back, because the clever ways in which Future Man manages to send up almost every geeky property out there is its biggest charm.
That is, aside from Derek Wilson. You may recognize him from Preacher (the show developed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who are executive producers here) as Donnie Schenck, one of the best parts of a show that already boasts an impressively stacked cast. His performance as Wolf doesn’t afford him exactly the same dramatic opportunity, but shows he is more than capable of the Hemsworth beefy-charming shtick, albeit on a slightly less child-friendly side of the scale. Under any other circumstances, it’s the kind of turn that ought to vault him to full leading-man status (the episode he carries is a singular fever dream), and the way it’s somewhat lost under Future Man’s uneven tone is maybe the show’s biggest pity.
Eliza Coupe fares best in navigating the ups and downs — she and Wilson are easily the best parts of the show — largely because she’s so keyed in to the high energy that Tiger brings with her that we, as an audience, can’t help but get caught up, too. The learning curve that Tiger and Wolf experience in adapting to a more prosperous, peaceful past isn’t a storyline we haven’t seen before (Back to the Future gets its day in the sun, too), and it’s essentially propelled through by the actors’ commitment alone. For instance, one of the show’s better gags is its inability to let us forget that these are essentially videogame characters; much like a round of Mortal Kombat, they yell out what they’re doing — “headshot!” — as they do it. It’s also down to them that I feel any optimism about a possible second season.
Just as Tiger and Wolf’s progress in nixing their “kill everything that moves” instincts teeters back and forth depending on what the story demands rather than following any linear sense, the humor that Future Man shoots for swings from juvenile to sharp and back again. The pilot alone is loaded with jokes about ejaculate, and the entire story is predicated on finding a cure for herpes. But that doesn’t discount the fact that this show spends an entire episode ragging on James Cameron, or its near-lovely 2001: A Space Odyssey joke, replete with “The Blue Danube.”
To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with a good dick joke. The problem is that the brief moments of sublimity banked in nerdy lore are drawn promptly back to earth by their couching in the worst parts of geek culture. Jeri (Britt Lower, great in a thankless role), Josh’s co-worker and crush, is the embodiment of the point. She’s pretty, and she knows all about video games and sci-fi! She makes jokes! And she thinks the “dopey” janitor is cute! As it turns out, there are a few deeper machinations at work, but they kick in too late and too unconvincingly for the dream girl trope not to still taste a little bitter. It also sits uncomfortably with how strong Coupe is versus how little she’s given to do, and how the key to her character is inevitably tapping into her maternal instincts.
There are ultimately three things that really make Future Man worth watching. The first (two in one): Coupe and Wilson (Hutcherson is fine, but this isn’t the role that will make him more than Peeta Mellark). Second: the handful of jokes that eschew bathroom humor in order to skewer the very properties the show is ripping off. Third: Future Man contains the lovely Glenne Headly’s last performance. Though, like Lower and Coupe, she’s mostly been written into a stereotype, she’s still transfixing to watch, paired with Ed Begley Jr. as Josh’s mother and father.
All that said, Future Man isn’t a bad show. It’s fun — even if my tolerance for jokes about bodily fluids started to wane after a while — it’s just a little stretched thin. It was originally conceived as a film, which becomes more and more evident the further you get into the show’s 13-episode run. If you’re not Quantum Leap, there’s only so much juice you can get out of repeatedly jumping through time, and Future Man starts and sputters despite its best efforts not to, not unlike the time-traveling mechanism that serves as the primary engine for the show’s hijinks. And, in the end, the ratio of old jokes to new material may not be enough to stand the test of time.