The hipper side of Hulu: Streaming site is producing its own quirky programming that crackles

[4 August 2011]

By Steve Johnson

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO — The series offers a deft twist on superhero stories. British juvenile delinquents, caught outdoors in a lightning storm, slowly realize they have developed extraordinary powers.

They scuffle and scrape. They curse up a blue streak. And slowly, inevitably, but not in the same glossy way an American network series would have them do it, they band together.

“Misfits” has won best drama series in Great Britain’s version of the Emmys, the BAFTAs. But instead of showing on one of the usual stateside outlets for British crossovers, it can be found on Hulu.

Yes, Hulu, the Web enterprise most people think of as the place to catch up on missed episodes of American network series.

As part of its plan almost since its 2007 inception, the website has also tried to pump in some programming Americans cannot find elsewhere.

It used to do so quietly, making a nice franchise out of Japanese anime, for instance. But now, with the “Misfits” second season just starting up — plus two other series only available in the U.S. on Hulu, the British chef comedy “Whites” and the American metaphysical contemplation “The Booth at the End” — Hulu is starting to wave the flag a little harder for the series it shows exclusively.

“This summer you’re seeing us getting more public about that as an area of interest,” said Andy Forssell, Hulu’s senior vice president of content acquisition and distribution.

The goal, he said, is to find programming that inspires passion: “We’d much rather have a show that a couple of million people just love to death and email their friends about than one that 10 million people like quite a bit.”

“Misfits” seems to be that kind of show. It’s been one of the top programs on Hulu since the first six-episode season began airing in June. It was most popular on the site every Monday, the day new episodes are put up (episodes old and new are all available at hulu.com/misfits).

And mostly with good reason. The first couple of episodes — like most every TV series — try a little too hard to be edgy. The music-video-style glamorization of heavy drinking, in one scene, is a pretty ugly aesthetic choice. And, more broadly, Nathan, the Irish nonstop talker played by Robert Sheehan, isn’t nearly as charming as he thinks he is or, indeed, as the script seems to require him to be.

But as the show moves past setting up the premise, it really finds a stride. This group of young people, brought together by a community-service requirement, slowly, warily, discovers more common ground than they initially thought — in their shared predicament, but also in their basic humanity. Its classic band-of-brothers, war-movie stuff, but it tosses in sisters, English class prejudice and the ever-poignant teen angst.

And although its award win was as a drama, there is good humor throughout as, for instance, Nathan grows increasingly impatient to learn what power the lightning storm gave him. If you must have an American comparison, think NBC’s “Heroes,” but with much less high sheen and much more crackle in the dialogue and focus in the storytelling.

Be warned, however (or enticed): “Misfits’” push to come off gritty and realistic means it is as frank, in language and image, as an American pay-cable series.

“You never know quite what you’re going to get,” said Murray Ferguson, an executive producer with the show. “One minute it’s a genre story, the next minute a love story. ... It sort of pushes the boundaries. It’s unrestrained.”

Being on Hulu, he said, where viewers can call it up on demand, feels natural for the show. Back home, only half of its viewership, said Ferguson, came from people watching it in first-run airings on Channel 4, the publicly funded alternative channel.

It also works for the way the initial target audience of 16-to-24-year-olds views video. (As word of mouth on the show built in the U.K. since its 2009 premiere, the audience expanded, Ferguson said.)

“It’s not just the television screen anymore,” he said. “We were very interested in the idea of stepping into slightly new territory and premiering with (Hulu). Happily, it seems to be working.”

Also worth a look are the other two Hulu-exclusive series. “Whites” stars Alan Davies as the chef at a country hotel, and, as a scripted show, it delivers some of the absurdity and emotional frustrations that don’t always come through in our surfeit of reality-based cooking programs.

“The Booth at the End” is, in its early episodes, just cryptic enough to keep you off balance, just specific enough to keep you coming back. The story of a mysterious man in a diner who grants people their wishes, in exchange for an often terrible price. It comes from Vuguru, the multiplatform video firm started by ex-Disney chief Michael Eisner in 2006.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/145798-the-hipper-side-of-hulu-streaming-site-is-producing/