Why Future Man Owes Its Great First Season to Derek Wilson

TV Features Future Man
Why Future Man Owes Its Great First Season to Derek Wilson

The weirder your show, the more likely it is that a side character boosts it toward greatness. When there’s less focus on the prestige of it all or building up the bonds of sitcom stars for primetime sexiness, the idiosyncratic characters—likely the writers’ favorite characters to write jokes for—can steal the spotlight and become almost instant breakouts. I’m thinking most recently of Janet (D’Arcy Carden), the omnipotent anthropomorphic database from The Good Place, and Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) from Parks and Recreation, but the same idea can be applied to the first season of Hulu’s sci-fi weirdness, Future Man. In it, there is a badass military man from an apocalyptic future where his kind must live in the sewers and eat rats. His name is Wolf, he is played by Derek Wilson, and he is one of the best TV creations of the year.

Future Man takes a bit to get going. It’s a series executive produced and partially directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, so it’s their brand of strange, silly, R-rated kids content (think of all the references in This Is the End) applied to time travel, the apocalypse, and other great science fiction subjects of (but not limited to) the 1980s. The pilot episode features Josh Futturman (Josh Hutcherson) completing the last level of his favorite video game, which turns out to be a recruitment tool sent from the future. This is a future run by perfect Biotics (a fear of anyone in any minority, let alone a loser janitor like Futterman), the flawed, human resistance to which is made up of a bunch of subterranean Mad Max machos.

The set-up is so tired that the show has to call attention to it, and the loser-done-good trope is as simplistic as you can get, but as the season progresses to the genre’s more exciting aspects (including the spectacular time travel episode “Herpe: Fully Loaded,” which manages to nail a racial tension/humor divide), it gives itself more chances to exhale and expand its weirdness. As good as Hutcherson is as the charming fuck-up everyman, his real skill is being a straight man to the one-two combo of Wolf and Tiger (Eliza Coupe), the two resistance fighters sent back to find the savior that beat their game. The safe protagonist, like the safe plot, is pure set-up, allowing the real, bizarro series stars to shine through.

The pilot, for all its expository trappings, also feels a little safe from Rogen and Goldberg. They’ve been getting more and more confident with their films, but their impulse is to stick with loose ramble sessions to lower our guard and then hit us with an outrageous punchline. There’s a place for that in the mix of realism and genre they’ve constructed here, but it’s far more entertaining when they let their premises go wild as the season unfolds. The best of their premises is that of Thor, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and countless others: Let’s have an intimidatingly musclebound stranger interpret our world.

The show uses Wilson’s razor jaw and constant scruff (along with a cartoonish scar and eyeliner) to make all those jokes about strong alien/gods/robots not understanding puny Earth society the on-going comic relief. A small diner scene between Wilson and a pickle is instantly classic, with the kind of fish-out-of-water comedy reactions (Wilson’s stunned wonder at a pickle) that need real acting chops to sell their humor. Without his performance, there’s a funny line about someone misidentifying a pickle. With it, we have a character moment that displays awe, suffering in a character’s past, openness to his new world’s pleasure, and an undermining of the emotionless hardass he’d been up until that point… in a scene about eating a pickle.

Don’t get me wrong—the other cast members are great. Keith David, as head scientist of the herpes research center where Futturman works as a janitor; Haley Joel Osment, as their petulant boss; Britt Lower, as Hutcherson’s crush (who becomes much more interesting than that description, I promise); and of course Coupe, as Tiger, all deliver proper silliness soberly. Coupe has one of the harder roles, because her comic relief is less over-the-top and her character is built for longer-term growth. It’s a fine role, but not one that shakes you down like Wolf announcing to a group of dinner guests that he, just now, received a blowjob.

Wilson’s character becomes a wonderful chef, applying his hyper-militaristic attitude towards perfecting a souffle in a small subplot that serves The Great British Bake Off with much more murder than the competition usually entails. He’s contrasted in these scenes with Ed Begley, Jr., who plays Futturman’s father and serves as Wolf’s cuddly Californian hippie drill sergeant. Tiger gets to play off of the realistic, feminist, big-hearted Mrs. Futturman (the late Glenne Headly, who died during the season’s production), but these contrasts are really just for Wolf.

It’s in scenes like this that the nuances of Wilson’s performance are readily apparent. Though his jacked physicality and action figure costuming are certainly a large part of the character’s appeal, Wilson’s delivery—whisper-shouted through his teeth like he was parodying Will Arnett or embracing Chris Evans’ action hero in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World—is mondo macho perfection. It’s self-aware gravel that sounds, accurately enough considering the premise, like the protagonist voiceover in any number of realistic first-person shooter video games that would be advertised during college football.

The whole season hints at his stardom, but by its end it’s clear the writers knew they had a breakout on their hands. Wilson is absolutely unstoppable as the finale’s star, when he falls for the smart house (Megan Hayes, phenomenal) of famous Hollywood multi-hyphenate James Cameron. This makes about as much sense in context, and it’s one of the most delightfully absurd pieces of television I’ve ever seen. Wilson is charismatic, romantic, tough, and hilarious—almost all on his own in these scenes. He’s the Joaquin Phoenix/Duke Nukem crossover you never knew you needed. Aside from that, jokes about Cameron’s titanic greatness are beaten into the ground so hard they meet the Earth’s core, fuse with it, and emerge all the more powerful.

The same occurs with the season as a whole, which follows its strange premise along all its delightfully strange loose ends. There’s a lot of fun to be found in the ridiculous “what-if” theorizing the show explores, especially as it abandons its fake-out “chosen one” premise for its time travel craziness, that make me even more excited for where it’s going. Starting with references to 1980s sci-fi and ending with a nod to Her (and Avatar), Future Man’s present is strong enough that it deserves to live on—and, if nothing else, there’s at least one man in it with an amazing comic future ahead of him.

Future Man is now streaming on Hulu.

Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.

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