Somehow, YouTube Original Champaign ILL Is One of Hulu’s Best ShowsImage courtesy of Hulu Comedy Features Champaign ILL
Once upon a time, in the late 2010s to be exact, YouTube decided that now was the time to get into the original content game à la Netflix and Hulu. With that, YouTube Red was born—well, before they changed the name to YouTube Premium, thanks to the moniker of adult website RedTube. And with it came several stabs at original comedies and dramas, including Step Up: High Water, Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television, and Paranormal Action Squad.
But alas, YouTube stumbled on the truth that several other major corporations have only discovered several years and billions of dollars later: multiple services, especially small ones, competing with each other to offer multiple original shows just isn’t profitable in the long run. Like Seeso and Crackle, the streamer chose to shut down their original offerings, with Step Up: High Water and hit series Cobra Kai, a continuation of the Karate Kid films, getting further seasons through Starz and Netflix respectively. Ultimately, most of the other series only got one or two seasons each before further production was nixed, leaving Ryan Hansen out of work and several projects in the dust.
One of those was Champaign ILL, a comedy which only made it to one season and 10 episodes. Co-created by David Caspe, the mind behind Happy Endings, the show shares a similar screwball flair with that beloved cult sitcom, as well as co-star Adam Pally. Champaign ILL was axed by YouTube in April 2019, only five months after it premiered. But that single season recently got a bump when it began streaming on Hulu, and curious subscribers noticed that, Hey—this show is really good.
Sam Richardson (of Veep, Detroiters and, sigh, The Tomorrow War fame) and Pally star as Alf and Ronnie, two guys whose musician buddy Lou invited them on tour the summer after high school and, well, they never really left. By the time they’re in their mid-thirties, Lou is a rich, wildly successful hip-hop artist, and the trio have been flying on private jets and gobbling high-grade sushi for years. That is, until Lou suddenly cracks his skull and dies in a random, horrific accident. Realizing they don’t have any money of their own—or even any basic life skills—Ronnie and Alf return home to Champaign, Illinois. But they’re determined to get back to mega fame and the high life they’re used to, even while sitting in an empty apartment: “All the stuff we don’t need so we can just focus on getting all that stuff back!”
Despite the setup of Lou’s tragic death, the basic plot of the show and strong writing make even the funeral scene laugh-out-loud funny (Though Keith David in a fat suit is a grievous mistake). Pally and Richardson are playing absolutely spoiled dopes, and they’re the perfect actors for Alf and Ronnie’s unearned, entitled swagger mixed with barely veiled insecurities. The pair search out ways to get famous again while reconnecting with the past, like Ronnie flirting with the high school girlfriend he ghosted, Courtney. But, of course, they constantly shoot themselves in the foot on either path.
These early episodes especially provide hilarious commentary on the trashy allure of social media fame and the awkward chasm between “normal” life and a wealthy, privileged one. Alf and Ronnie are often jerks, but the show doesn’t forget that Lou’s lifestyle is pretty tempting from the other side, and that the characters are still grieving for their friend. (Both are concerned the town thinks they’re “not doing well or whatever” since Lou died.)
The second half of Champaign, ILL uses that emotion to shift into slightly more dramatic territory without compromising any of the often silly jokes (“Alanna Finerman is not worth it! She jerked me off in the back of a Jeep Liberty sophomore year!”) Ronnie catches onto maturity a bit earlier than the (marginally) more dysfunctional Alf, as he realizes he’s a sex addict and that touring with Lou might have stunted his growth. Alf, meanwhile, only slides further into drug dealing and using, even when he seems to be cleaned up. The two characters start to disconnect, with things coming to a head in the giddy, obvious Birdman homage “8.1 Milligrams Per Deciliter.” The film connection shouldn’t work, but Richardson and Pally in these long takes are by turns funny and poignant as their friendship comes to a literally fiery conclusion.
Watching the ending of Champaign ILL, it’s not totally obvious where the direction of the web series would have gone if a second season had been picked up. Like Party Down or early Office seasons, there’s a bittersweet poignancy to the failure of the characters. When the characters end up back where they started (albeit with a hologram of their dead best friend accompanying them), it just fits perfectly with the tone of the dark comedy. But this season actually does feel like a full, self-contained story, whereas most shows that brag about being “10 hour movies” end up featuring hours of dead air.
We’ll never know if a prospective sophomore outing would have done something new with Ronnie and Alf on tour, or if it would’ve started reverting to a formula. The sad thing about the streaming bubble is that a lot of promising, creative series haven’t gotten a chance to develop before getting canceled. But at least viewers can watch those 10 episodes of Champaign ILL on Hulu, knowing that for a brief, glorious moment in 2018, YouTube funded a scene where a coked-out Rich Somer screams, “Mr. Whiskers was ASKING FOR IT!”