It’s been an unusual run for Future Man, Hulu’s fitfully funny but endearingly oddball show about a nerdy janitor and two warriors from the future who team up to try and save the world from a coming apocalypse. The first two seasons saw the trio overcome their oft-combative personality clashes to prevent the near-extinction of the human race; the first time on purpose, the second time as the unexpected consequence of their previous actions. They ended the second season imprisoned for time crimes, sentenced to “death by entertainment” in the year 3491 as the subjects of a Running Man-like game called the Die-cathalon. So what’s the mission now? “There’s no mission,” Tiger (Eliza Couple) tells fellow warrior Wolf (Derek Wilson) and the hapless Josh (Josh Hutcherson). “This is about survival.” Cue the futuristic battle arena.
Of course, that lack of a plan doesn’t last forever. By the end of the first episode, they’ve escaped their thunderdome of a prison, and soon enough our heroes are once more venturing through reality in an effort to save themselves from the time cops hunting them down. (Upon realizing the machine they’ve captured allows them to move through not just time, but space as well, Wolf nods approvingly: “That’s a new and fresh concept. I like it.”) Still, it takes quite awhile for a mission to come together, meaning the first half of the season meanders even more than usual; add to that some twists involving loss of memory and multiple episodes that keep our core group of three in different places, and you’ve got a final season of Future Man that struggles to find resonance for its eventual emotional arc, especially with only eight episodes to this shortened third and last outing.
Luckily, the show has managed to find an engaging core to carry it through the often hit-or-miss nature of its narrative and humor, and that’s the charm and verve of its leads’ comic performances. Coupe has remained the series MVP throughout its run, her Tiger consistently a source of great humor (Coupe’s deadpan-delivery skills are second to none) and engagingly charismatic pathos. But Wilson’s Wolf became an unexpectedly rich character, a killer whose zeal for bloodshed was gradually replaced by a hedonistic ’80s-loving businessman who achieves wild success in nearly every avenue of life. (Before they enter the Die-cathalon arena in 3491, Jock Jams’ “Get Ready For This” fires up, and Wolf utters a hearty, “I knew this would stand the test of time.”) And Hutcherson’s performance as poor, put-upon Josh Futterman managed to keep the character’s nebbish flailing from ever becoming too grating, instead repeatedly finding the prosaic everyman inside the fighting-challenged custodian.
Still, even the three stars struggle a bit with what they’re given this season. A big part of the problem is the way the central dynamic has been reset back to a goofy and stereotyped version of their relationships. Despite a second-season ender that literally saw each one choose to kill themselves rather than hurt the others, we’re back to the early days of the show’s treatment of all three: Josh is helpless and whiny, preferring to snipe at his warrior companions, and they in turn seem to have forgotten everything that’s changed in their view of Josh since the first few episodes, babying him and acting as though they don’t care if he lives or dies. The show is self-aware enough to mock this dynamic, but self-awareness alone can’t dispel the suspicion that the creative team abandoned the more evolved and complex friendship they patiently grew over two years in favor of a reductive source of jokes.
But the jokes, when they come, can still deliver. A voice in his head that helps Josh escape the Die-cathalon pays off in a big way, and numerous callbacks to previous episodes and situations make a nice reward for attentive viewers. The sense of humor has always been dark, but it gets black as tar this season, such as when Wolf tells Josh about the future threat of needy human children programmed to explode when you hug them. Or when Tiger, assuming they’re stuck in an especially animalistic and violent era of human history, gestures at Jesus on the cross when emphasizing humanity’s penchant for cruelty: “Clearly, they’re proud of it, because that rack of ribs is everywhere.” But the best jokes come from casual asides about the absurdity of their situation, and their exasperated reactions to it. (Tiger: “Why’d you have to bring us to yet another time when women are treated like garbage?” Josh: “I’m sorry—it’s called all of human history.”) Better still, the series almost wholly abandons the odious and juvenile dick jokes that infected the past two seasons.
Subplots and supporting turns add to the freewheeling, anything-goes vibe of the season. The addition of executive producer Seth Rogen as Susan, the host of the Die-cathalon tasked with tracking down his wayward prisoners, makes for an excellent foil, his dry persona elevating some of the sillier material. And Wolf’s boundless ambition continually pays dividends, as even the fugitives’ need to keep under the radar in the past can’t prevent him from doing things like inventing sliced bread 700 years too early, or organizing an international peace accord before such a thing was even thought possible.
Still, the winningly ramshackle tone of the series doesn’t obfuscate the way character dynamics take a hit this season, or inventive ideas fail to get fleshed out enough to really register before we’re on to the next misadventure. (Another apocalyptic threat is barely acknowledged by the villains or heroes; if the characters don’t care about it, it’s awfully hard for the viewer to invest.) Each of the three leads is granted some moments of grace as they near the ending, but these are of varying quality, and hampered by the rushed reintroduction of their relationships in the face of the aforementioned memory games. Future Man finds a decent denouement to close out its triptych of seasons, and those who enjoyed past installments won’t be let down by this one. If only all that traveling through space and time could have found a more richly developed series.