“Last night’s TV is still a huge part, and always will be a huge part of what we do. But along the way, and particularly starting in 2011, we started running into opportunities,” Hulu acting CEO Andy Forssell said at the Television Critics Association press tour on Wednesday morning, as he rolled out an ambitious new slate of programming. The first of Hulu’s new shows to hit the air is The Awesomes, an unconventional superhero sitcom created by Saturday Night Live’s Seth Meyers and Michael Shoemaker, that debuts today on the site. The show, about a second-generation superhero struggling to live up to his father’s intimidating reputation as the head of the titular team, is a funny, refreshing break from the current crop of dark superheroes. But it’s also an illustration of Hulu’s willingness to play with genre conventions, and which kinds of stories fit in which kinds of television formats, which shows up in two other sitcoms that will follow The Awesomes to Hulu’s streams.
For The Awesomes, Meyers says he wanted to move away from the standard superhero arc, and aim for a lighter tone than the grimness that has characterized the most recent generation of live-action superhero films.
“There’s like such a large appetite for any kind of superhero story, be it light or dark,” Meyers said of his and Shoemaker’s trip to San Diego Comic-Con last month. “We were comic book fans. We’re sort of drawn to team dynamics, the sort of interpersonal relationships between people, and we wanted to sort of join a team as it was getting put together and sort of follow over a sort of a 10-episode arc as they sort of learned. Superhero-movies-wise, I’ve always enjoyed the team movies more, for the reason that you don’t have to spend so much time on one person’s really dark origin story, which tends to be the way it goes.”
Similarly, The Wrong Mans, a co-production with the BBC that will debut on Hulu on November 11, is a story that normally would be told in an hour-long drama format: it follows two men who are unwittingly mistaken for participants in a dangerous criminal conspiracy. On a network, that would likely be a dark drama. On Hulu, it’s a half-hour action comedy.
“Hulu were very good at asking the objective questions,” co-creator Mark Freeland said of their attempts to make sure the story fit into a half-hour format. “Same with — is it clear enough? Do we understand? So they gave great objective notes that made our story clearer.”
His co-creator Jim Field Smith said that the format required them to be more careful about structuring their stories to be lean and efficient.
“Usually in your sort of Homelands and your 24 you’ve got an hour to kind of weave your way through all the different subplots. In half an hour you just don’t have that time,” he acknowledged. “So that was the real challenge for me, was trying to walk that line. But the most important thing for us was to make a show that functioned effectively as a drama-thriller, but then was also funny. And so that was kind of how we picked our way through it.”
The creators of Quick Draw, a largely-improvised comedy western about a Harvard-educated doctor trying to bring forensic policing to a frontier town, joked that they were eliminating inefficiencies from the police procedural genre, but also said that the spine of the case of the week gave them a base on which to build the comedy while constraining it from running too far afield.
“If you take any CSI episode, you could crunch it down to 30 minutes, let’s face it,” co-creator John Lehr said. “Take off the sunglasses, and all the montages, 19 montages they do [per episode].”
And Nancy Howser, who co-created the show, said “ we write scripts, but the actors don’t see these scripts…We want it to feel like a full-blown script that you — you know, you watch it and the story is there and it all sums up in the beginning and in the end and you feel like you’ve been carried along. So we do have a real spine to the show. And then everybody kind of fills it in.”
Hulu’s willingness to play with tone comes at a time when shows on other networks are less intentionally challenging the definition of what makes something a comedy or a drama. Is Girls, a show that went to exceptionally dark places around subjects like consent, sex, and obsessive compulsive disorder, a comedy simply because it’s a half-hour long? Is Orange Is The New Black, an exceptionally funny show that happens to be set in prison, and that also has the capacity to cut deeply, a drama simply because it runs for an hour an episode? Hulu’s sitcoms are raising an important question about the best format for individual stories that’s been a long time coming.