Future Man might be all about the future, but it’s a very ’80s kind of time. And that makes sense: the ’80s was when the future was at its neon-coloured brightest, an exciting world of tomorrow full of skinny ties and big hair and shoulder pads that made getting through a doorway difficult.
Future Man isn’t just about ’80s pop culture references (though there are plenty of them). The ’80s are woven deep into its DNA, combined with a whole lot of jokes to make something that looks back fondly at the future we once knew, then turns those memories into something new.
It’s a show with a high score
Josh Futturman (Josh Hutcherson) is pretty much a loser. He works as a janitor, he has no real ambition, and his idea of a good time is stopping off at a video game store to talk about Ms Pac-Man’s sex life. But he is good at one thing: the video game Biotic Wars.
No sooner has he defeated the game’s final boss than game characters Tiger (Eliza Coupe) and Wolf (Derek Wilson) materialise in front of him (which is slightly awkward considering the extremely intimate fashion in which he’s celebrating his victory). Turns out what he thought was a video game was really a test to find the ultimate warrior to save a post-apocalyptic future.
If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s basically the plot of ’80s classic – well, it’s a classic if you’re a video gamer who dreamed of actually being respected for your high scores – The Last Starfighter, in which winning at a video game qualifies the lead to take charge of an actual spaceship protecting an alien planet.
The idea of video games bleeding into the real world (and vice versa) didn’t stop there. Everything from Tron to War Games underlined the fact that back in the ’80s, video games really were a window to an exciting new world. You don’t get that from Tetris.
I’ll be back
Tiger and Wolf haven’t just come back to collect Josh. They’re also on their way back to 1969 to assassinate Josh’s boss, Dr Kronish (Keith David). It turns out Kronish’s quest to cure herpes – specifically, the case he caught the night of the first Moon landing – leads directly to the creation of the Biotics and the Biotic War that has devastated the future. Going back in time to kill someone important to a nightmarish future devastated by war? Terminator much?
How much does this show love Terminator creator James Cameron? For one thing, there’s an entire episode later in the series set inside Cameron’s ridiculously high-tech house.
While most people think of The Terminator as kind of a ’90s thing thanks to the success of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, let’s not forget that the original was 100 percent ’80s goodness. Not that Future Man isn’t afraid to mix things up a little with its pop culture references: while killing a bunch of bikers in the past and stealing their clothes might sound like a Terminator 2 reference, the bikers themselves aren’t Schwarzenegger clones – they’re dressed exactly like the ones out of ’60s counterculture classic Easy Rider.
It’s not afraid to go back to the future
While back in 1969, the trio of time travellers ends up sneaking into a party at a black fraternity. A string of jokes about their varying levels of wokeness segues into a dance-off, which Josh wins by deploying a reasonable attempt at Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Cut to a partygoer calling his cousin Tito to let Michael know about this amazing dance move – which, if you haven’t seen Back To The Future lately, is a reference to that film’s notorious joke about how back in 1955 Marty McFly inspires Chuck Berry to invent rock ‘n’ roll.
Even when they make it back to the present day, Wolf and Tiger have a lot of strangeness to deal with. Many of the series more charming moments come from them just reacting to the new world around them. It turns out the future doesn’t have babies; it doesn’t have bad pop music either. And when you come from a future full of rubble, high heels really don’t make a lot of sense.
You mess with the past, you mess up the future
One of pop culture’s biggest rules of time travel is, if you change something in the past, that change will be felt in the future. Call it the Back To The Future rule, mostly because in going back to 1969 Josh runs into his own parents and realises that if he messes with their relationship, he’s never going to be born.
Josh manages to convince Wolf and Tiger that they just can’t go around killing people (and there’s a Terminator 2 reference right there), but they’ve already done enough damage. Fortunately, the changes that do result from their rampage are more subtle and funnier than simply causing Josh to never exist. And once they start messing things up, the pressure’s on them to put things right – we’re not saying the season eventually gets into Quantum Leap territory with the need to fix history, but we’re not saying it doesn’t either.
After all, there’s only so much guidance you can take from ’80s pop culture: Future Man might love the past, but it’s charting a future all its own.
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