By Steve Greene | Criticwire October 4, 2013 at 2:43PM
These days, it's getting increasingly difficult to spin superhero-centric entertainment in different ways. Take "The Awesomes," the latest original offering from Hulu and co-creators Seth Meyers and Michael Shoemaker, an animated show that wears its influences on its spandex-covered sleeves. The titular group of heroes is an Avengers-style mish-mash of complementary talents, their main antagonist adopts a "Dr."-based nickname and a recurring in-episode theme will sound oddly familiar to any fans of Michael Giacchino's score for "The Incredibles."
Under a comedy banner, "The Awesomes" recently finished their first season with a ten episode run that showcased some of the best advantages and most common pitfalls of navigating web series format and distribution. Set in a modern-day world where superheroes are necessary to maintain status quo, the sudden departure of Mr. Awesome leaves his son Prock (a combination of Professor and Doc) to assemble a crime-fighting team to fill the void. As he searches with childhood friend Muscleman, the roster slowly fills out with a crew of lower-level superheroes who were previously overlooked for elite status. There's Frantic (an ode to The Flash), Impresario (who can conjure objects at will, albeit with some attached mommy issues), Sumo (a scrawny grade-schooler named Tim whose anger transforms him Hulk-like into a giant human), Gadget Gal (an octogenarian former star whose recent zap with a de-aging ray restores her to glory-day form) and Hotwire (an electricity wielder who quickly becomes the object of Prock's affection).
The show was originally destined for a traditional cable-network run, hence the familiar 21-minute episode length. But despite being branded as a Hulu Original Series, perhaps the biggest shortcoming of “The Awesomes” is that it brings its story to match a runtime rather than reap the benefits of its content delivery freedom. Most of the ten episodes feel like synthesized packages of individual, self-sufficient chunks. In the show's second season, the show might benefit from following the lead of shows like "Childrens Hospital," a web series that, despite making the jump to Cartoon Network, still kept the minimalist spirit from its days of four-minute installments.
It's an issue that plagues any show with a sizable ensemble: you can only divide an episode so many ways. This places Prock (voiced by Meyers) in a precarious state. In a show with a number of other viable options, he’s the main character without being especially dynamic. (The AV Club recently ran an Inventory feature highlighting other shows with this problem.) And as Prock stays the main thrust of most episodes, most of the rest of The Awesomes can't travel beyond their one-sentence character breakdowns. One helpful way to solve both of these is to decentralize the story. Rather than try to spotlight all nine team members in 21 minutes, splitting an eight-minute episode two ways would give some of these supporting characters a chance to evolve from their main distinguishing personality trait and would eliminate the necessity of having the whole team together at all times.
With a voice cast littered with fellow past and present "Saturday Night Live" talent, there's a potential for "The Awesomes" to achieve some comedic transcendency. Bill Hader plays arch-villain Dr. Malocchio, a mind-control nemesis bent on global domination. Taran Killam turns Frantic into a superhero riff on Kenneth Parcell from "30 Rock," complete with a backwoods drawl and awkward upbringing. Nasim Pedrad, Cecily Strong and Bobby Moynihan even fill in as a rotating cast of tertiary characters (news reporters, townspeople, intergalactic beings). But in its current format, these efforts seem somewhat hamstrung when the characters they're voicing lack a certain amount of flexibility. With the proper showcase, these actors can bring some satisfying shading to roles that otherwise veer on the edge of one-note territory.
The show's already proven that it can work magic with smaller chunks. Maybe it's just the wicked brilliance of Moynihan's featured player vocal variations on Fourvel, but this universe can be pleasantly built on one-off characters. The world of the Gleeborians, an alien race fleshed out in "Paternity" (along with "Robotherapy," the first season's two standout episodes) are the benefactors of a glorious payoff built into the show's rhythms. But the sheer joy of poor Globo's final moments wouldn't have been deadened had that episode lacked a conventional B-plot.
Unless this is a subtle message of the series, stories rooted in superpowers are inherently static, a theme that would be profound if there wasn’t a counterexample resting just on the other side of Hulu’s Rolodex. The British import "Misfits," for all its convoluted misadventures post-Season 3, told a compelling tale of the consequences of having other-wordly powers. Its most memorable sequences stemmed from the moments when the story couldn't and didn't simply hit the reset button. "The Awesomes" may not be striving for the same level of profundity, but even fluffy laughs can benefit from some significant shakeups now and then.
Other strengths of “The Awesomes” come in its parallels to the current cream of the animated crop, FX’s “Archer.” While both shows need big showdowns and overarching plot machinations to keep the narrative momentum going forward, most of their lasting jokes have their origins in the mundane. Workplace chats almost always trump giant action setpieces if there’s no real danger of failure, death or any substantial change to the everyday routine. Even when dealing with a spy agency or a collection of otherworldly abilities, petty disagreements, tiny slip-ups and wordplay seem to always win out and generate the heartiest laughs.
Even though the premise for this show existed as far back as a half-decade ago, it’s interesting to note that incipient “Late Night” host Meyers is voicing the main character here. A new leader of a group that was once a proud institution but recently experienced some setbacks and is now a main source of hope in an increasingly fractured landscape? Maybe The Awesomes is an unintentional metaphor for the state of late-night TV. The most successful, viral-ready segments of any 11:00 PM-or-later TV offering right now are the best easy-to-digest segments from a larger whole. As “The Awesomes” (and Hulu’s other original programming enterprises) go forward, they might want to follow suit.
Watch the first season of "The Awesomes" on Hulu here.