"Future Man," which begins streaming Tuesday on Hulu, is a dark and sunny time travel comedy that, like a goofball "Stranger Things," wears its influences on its sleeve, around its neck and on the top of its head.
Created by Howard Overman (whose straight genre credits include "Misfits" and "Atlantis") with Ariel Shaffir and Kyle Hunter – who co-wrote the impertinent Pixar parody "Sausage Party" with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who produce and direct here – it is, as those names might suggest, profane, obscene, sanguinary, silly and suspenseful by turns. And sometimes all at once.
Josh Hutcherson ("The Hunger Games") plays Josh Futturman, a janitor at a pharmaceutical research company who still lives in his childhood room and obsessively plays a never-beaten video game in which the last gasp of ordinary humanity battles the genetically perfect people who want to erase them from Earth. He also has heroic masturbatory fantasies about one of its characters, Tiger. (It is perhaps not the most fortuitous moment to lead off with masturbation jokes, but good luck getting those out of the system. Whole comic empires would crumble.)
When Josh does finally beat the game, the actual Tiger (Eliza Coupe) and her lieutenant, Wolf (Derek WIlson), appear from the hellish future to hail him as "the savior" whose superior skills will lead them back into the light. The game itself was a vetting process, which, as the writers make no attempt to hide, is also the central conceit of the 1984 film "The Last Starfighter."
"It's the exact same plot as the movie," Josh tells Tiger.
"What's a movie?" asks Tiger, who in 2162 lives in a sewer and off of rats.
There are bits and pieces of “The Terminator” and “Back to the Future” sewn in and discussed, an extended riff on “2001: A Space Odyssey” and a long, satisfying takedown of a film director whose name I will leave you to discover for yourself.
Josh, of course, has none of the fighting skills he demonstrated with a joystick. (He admits to being good at word jumble and Sudoku.) But he does happen to work near the man Tiger and Wolf have come to kill, a herpes-afflicted scientist (Keith David, turning his dignified sonority to ironic effect), whose eventual cure for the disease will be the first step on the road to dystopia. ("They call it the herpes simplex," he tells Josh, relating how he contracted it on the night of the first moonwalk, "but there's nothing simple about it.") It’s that kind of science fiction.
Josh would prefer they not kill anyone; his effort is to keep Tiger and Wolf from turning contemporary Los Angeles into a bloody battlefield. (They travel briefly to 1969 too for jokes about what we know now about Bill Cosby and a meal at Canter's Deli. "I've never seen so much food in my life," says Wolf, "it's literally hanging from the walls." It is the beginning of a theme.)
That the trio will be changed by their association is no more than screenwriting 101, but the characters are appealing and their story, through all its ridiculous twists and turns, genuinely involving; even when you know where it's going, it's a treat to get there. For all the mayhem that occurs along the way, the show is good-hearted and aspirational and steeped in family feeling. Wilson is especially good as a soldier getting in touch with his creative side. Ed Begley Jr. and the late Glenne Headly, lovely in one of her last roles, are sweet as Josh's parents – loving, concerned, mildly eccentric, ready without question to embrace Josh's strange new friends.
If it's not exactly original — down to the trope of the angry motorcycle gang – like "Stranger Things," again, it mostly feels fresh, not exactly the same take on material already much explored, exploited and satirized. Still, halfway through the 13-episode season I can't say just where it's going or how it's going to get there, and with the odd pothole – there is something here to offend everyone – I’m very much enjoying the ride.
When: Any time, starting Tuesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language and violence)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd