True Life: Online TV

Hulu is the New Netflix: Why You Should Watch ‘Behind the Mask’

It’s not Orange is the New Black or House of Cards, but Hulu’s mascot docuseries Behind the Mask proves the streaming site is more than just a place to catch up on sitcoms.

Jason Riker and Hulu

Field lights go from black to blinding. Bleachers rattle from the crowd buzz. Cheerleaders go up an octave. It’s not for the players. It’s for the mascot.

“So many different people want pieces of him. Everyone wants to be around him. Everyone wants to take a picture of him. Who the heck is this guy?”

That’s from the trailer for Behind the Mask, Hulu’s newest original docuseries premiering this week. The fact is, the mascot may be the quiet kid sitting next to you in class with his head down. Or maybe she’s the energetic girl who knows everyone on campus. He might be a family man. Or a drill farmer. You’d never know. Like Superman, the unsung heroes vow not to reveal their identities.

Hulu has produced eight original series since 2011, but you probably haven’t heard of most. While Battleground, its first TV-length scripted series, received decently positive reviews and many flocked to Up to Speed for director Richard Linklater, there has yet to be a water-cooler-winner. But all that could change with Behind the Mask and, ultimately, with the company’s new leadership plans and $750 million investment to grow the platform and foster original content. As of this month, there are four million Hulu Plus subscribers and 30 million unique visitors per month, a jump of one million from December 2012. Hulu wants to make sure TV-watchers know that it’s not just a place to catch up on sitcoms; it has quality of its own. If ever a time to broaden your subscription TV horizons, it’s now.

Created by Emmy-winning filmmaker Josh Greenbaum and produced by Occupant Entertainment, Behind the Mask follows four sports mascots at the high school, college, minor league, and NBA professional levels—stripped down like you haven’t seen before. The unsexy reputation of a docudrama might just be saved. “These stories you can’t make up. You can’t write them,” Greenbaum says.

It took months to settle on the four mascots—hundreds were interviewed across all athletic levels. Yes, there were women. Ultimately, the four compelling ones that were chosen were also willing to completely unveil themselves, Greenbaum explains. “We couldn’t do a series around someone whose face was blurred out.”

A little introductory: You’ve got Michael Hostetter, aka “Rooty the Cedar Tree,” a 16-year-old Lebanon, Pennsylvania high school mascot who admits in the premiere that “it’s awkward around the cheerleaders. When you’re in the suit they treat you with hugs, outside the suit it’s like ‘hi.’” There’s UNLV college mascot, Jon Goldman, aka “Hey Reb,” the mustache-wearing, six-pack touting mountain man. Then there’s Chad Spencer, the man on a mission to become an NHL mascot, but for now spends his days inside the “Tux” the penguin suit for a minor league hockey team. Lastly, from the Milwaukee Bucks, there’s Kevin Vanderkolk, or “Bango,”—the LeBron James of mascots, as one fan notes.

In the 10-episode season, no storyline has a perfect hero ending. “There are definitely some twists and turns,” Greenbaum says. “Talk about Bango. He’s one of the most insane people I’ve ever met. He has no fear. He completely pushes the envelope time after time. We’ll see him go bigger faster bigger than he ever has. And with that, comes consequences.”

Greenbaum says Michael Hostetter, the most introverted mascot of the bunch, is also the most unpredictably exciting. “You see this kid who you might write off at first because he’s sort of shy and a bit awkward. But as you get to know him on the show, you realize that he’s incredible. He believes in his town and he’s out their cheering his heart out even though his team is losing.”

Behind the Mask is able to evoke a sort of rawness because it’s totally unscripted. “Don’t call it a reality show,” Greenbaum says. “We just go out and film their lives and then in the editing room we decide how we’re going to tell their story.”

The show strays from typical series gold featuring revenge, love, sex, etc., but it’s got that allure of a fascinating subject that strikes a chord with everyone—who hasn’t been curious about the world of a mascot at one point? It’s a gamble Hulu was willing to take, and it was a good one.

“We’re always looking for shows that we know our audiences will love but for various reasons haven’t been a fit in the traditional distribution landscape,” former acting CEO and SVP of content at Hulu Andy Forssell says (he oversaw production for Behind the Mask before leaving the company this month). “It’s not quite a formula, but there is a very deliberate process when it comes to green lighting original series.”

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If you look at the roster of anticipated shows Hulu has—or plans to—deliver, it’s clear that there are no restrictions on subject matter. Battleground is a mockumentary political comedy-drama focused on a U.S. Senate seat in Wisconsin; The Awesomes chronicles a retired superhero and his attempt to assemble a new team; East Los High is a sexy drama centered on Latino teens. And there are more.

Netflix may have gained the most attention for original scripted shows in 2013 with Emmy-winner House of Cards and the critically-acclaimed Orange Is the New Black, but Hulu is making sure that it won’t be ignored. “At the end of this year, we will have distributed around 20 first-run titles on our service in 2013. We expect to double that in the next couple of years,” Forssell says. “It will be dependent on the projects we find and how much material we think is great TV.”

Key word: great. The problem is pushing out programming for the sake of it, like Netflix potentially did with its “scary bad” and “poisonous” Hemlock Grove) and “beyond weird” Mako Mermaids It’s about finding those unique ideas that aren’t too unrelatable. (Mermaids on land? Really?)

As for Behind the Mask, Greenbaum originally thought of the concept for the series while working as a photojournalist years ago. He was sent to photograph a game where he was able to see a ton of college mascots at once. “It’s crazy, [the mascots] have all these rules,” Greenbaum explains. “Rule number one: don’t talk.” In the middle of the game, one of the mascots lost his head and went berserk, pushing kids out of the way to find it. “Rule number two: never take your hat off in public.” That’s when things really got interesting. Greenbaum mocked-up the show not long after that.

“There’s an incredible parallel to superheroes that I was very intrigued by,” he says. “It’s like, they are leading these dual lives. Clark Kent outside the suit and Superman inside. And I kept wondering: who is that person and what’s going on in their lives?”

Now, you won’t have to.