Since the rise of the Internet, media executives have fretted about the sustainability of music, television, film and books as industries. Fears about sales lost to digital piracy are gradually being assuaged as more and more companies adopt low-cost or free digital distribution models in the hopes that audiences will follow their favorite shows to these officially sanctioned modes of digital distribution.
In February of this year, while I was observing comedian John Hodgman leading a roundtable discussion in a hot tub on a cruise ship (it’s a long story), the future of terrestrial television in the Internet era was a key topic of debate. With the rising cost of cable and the general inconvenience of trying to keep up with currently-airing shows while networks inevitably shuttle them from one time slot to another, Netflix, Hulu and other digital distributors seem to be the way of the future, but one pitfall has always been their lack of original content. Even though networks often commission dozens of new shows that they cancel after only an episode or two has aired, they are the only ones with the financial freedom to throw that many darts at the wall in the hopes of one of them sticking.
Despite some initial skepticism towards the idea of television programs debuting online, Netflix has managed to prove itself by producing a generally well-received remake of “House of Cards,” the long-awaited fourth season of “Arrested Development” and the critically successful “Orange Is The New Black.” Amazon and Hulu have been less successful in the original development front so far, but they are both finally beginning to throw their hats into the ring in earnest.
Hulu-exclusive shows have mostly been American debuts of foreign programs, but it produced its first original, scripted show last year, and has debuted two original series this summer—“The Awesomes,” an animated superhero comedy produced by Saturday Night Live actor Seth Meyers, and “Quick Draw,” a mostly-improvised Western sitcom—with more to follow later in the year.
Unfortunately, things are not off to a promising start. Hulu seems to be aiming much lower than Netflix to begin with, and both shows largely miss the mark. “The Awesomes” appears to be trying to sell itself largely on its ties to voice actor Seth Meyers, but the show isn’t original enough or funny enough to be memorable at all—Cartoon Network’s “The Venture Brothers” tread largely similar ground much more effectively years ago. Even compared to Adult Swim’s infamously low-budget programming, the animation here looks cheap and shoddy, and unlike a number of other cheaply produced cartoons, it has no funny scripts or excellent voice acting to fall back on.
It might improve with time, but investing the time into watching the show in the first place seems like a waste of effort. Of the two shows, Hulu seems to be promoting this one much more aggressively, but money spent on advertising does little if the show itself can’t hold an audience’s interest.
“Quick Draw” is a little bit better than “The Awesomes,” but not by much. Calling it a scripted show seems a bit at odds with other descriptions of it as being mostly improvised, but improvisation would at least excuse some of its awkwardness. For a live action show, it’s rather cheap-looking as well, but its cheapness is primarily relegated to the relatively small number of simple sets on which the action takes place.
The concept of the show—Harvard-educated lawman goes out west to become a sheriff, to the incredulity of locals—is so thin as to scarcely be a concept at all, but fortunately the show dispenses with the constant “I went to Harvard” jokes pretty quickly. It isn’t terrible, but most of the humor is pretty pedestrian and largely unrelated to the setting itself, which seems like a waste of a setup, as there are plenty of tired “cowboy” tropes that could be subverted in amusing or unusual ways.
All in all, Netflix’s dominance in the world of original online programming still goes unchallenged. Based on the two new shows on Hulu, the biggest obstacle appears to be budget, but if intrusive corporate sponsorship still isn’t enough to get Hulu to produce a show that doesn’t look cheap, it’s unclear what would be able to finance it instead. Even the visible money problem pales in comparison to the real problem though: the comedies themselves just aren’t very funny. The world of online television is still a largely empty place, wide open to anybody who has the backing and the talent to create and fund a project. The problem now is simply how to fill it with quality shows from more than one website.