Hulu's Move Into Originals Fails to Impress

If Hulu had designs on building an original content business, its first foray doesn't augur much success. Initial episodes of "A Day in the Life" serve as little more than extended promotional videos for the subjects.

Documentarian Morgan Spurlock follows personalities for 24 hours and the first two episodes -- featuring Virgin impresario Richard Branson and Canadian comedian Russell Peters -- hardly live up to the promise of the series. Four more episodes are to come.

The effort to give viewers an unvarnished look into the lives of compelling individuals is not novel, but seemed intriguing enough. Yet, both episodes haven't proved to be particularly illuminating. And, instead of giving viewers what amounts to a backstage pass into the lives of Branson and Peters, it leaves them feeling as if they are in the audience while both play to the camera.

Disappointing is the series comes from Spurlock, the would-be renegade producer who in one film nudged McDonald's into dropping its super-sized portions, while in TV series "30 Days" took on issues such as the difficulty of surviving on minimum wage. Michael Moore he is not in "A Day in the Life."

In fact, the series runs completely counter to his recent brilliant film that exposes some of the ludicrousness in the Madison Avenue product placement business. Spurlock joins that ecosystem by turning the show into a showpiece for brands - Branson and his business ventures, and Peters' efforts to establish himself as a star in the U.S.

The Branson episode comes off as a 22-minute plug both for his Virgin America airline and his carefully cultivated image as a cool, benevolent billionaire. The show mostly focuses on Branson's trip to Chicago to serve as an ambassador for Virgin launching new routes between the Windy City and the West Coast.

There are gratuitous close-ups of Virgin logos and signage, while not much time goes by without attractive female Virgin flight attendants on display.

In Chicago, cameras don't follow the blond, wavy-haired Branson into meetings to discuss his efforts at space travel and underwater voyages. There is no meeting with an ad agency, where Branson's read on the American consumer would be something to chew on.

Instead, he's shown handing out free plane tickets; meeting with fawning employees; and conducting interviews plugging Virgin America as the scrappy upstart. "Once people try it, they very rarely go back to the other airlines," he tells a reporter.

Documentarian Spurlock is supposed to be a reporter, not film them asking softball questions to a smooth talker. Spurlock also willingly allows Branson to portray himself as heavily committed to global non-profit ventures. But, without following him on a dangerous fact-finding mission or a visit to a struggling country, it rings hollow.

Spurlock's only coup is capturing a meeting between Branson and Adrian Grenier, star of HBO's "Entourage," where Grenier wants Branson to become involved in an environmental project. Wearing a suit and appearing intimidated - both starkly different from his super-casual, cocky HBO character -- Grenier nervously asks Branson to join the board of advisors. Branson says no, though suggests there may be an opportunity to work together.

Moving on, the second episode of "A Day in the Life" focuses on the 40-year-old Peters, a Canadian comic, who does well with ethnic humor, but is not a U.S. household name.

Early on, Spurlock sets the tone by sounding like his press agent: "Mainstream America has yet to catch on to him the same way international audiences have."

Much of the episode is devoted to simply showing Peters' act on stage. It's funny and succeeds in generating interest, but that hardly fits with the show's behind-the-scenes aim.

Actually, the laughs are good enough to make one check out Peters clips on YouTube - a Hulu competitor.

Attempts to show a true "day in the life" for Peters are pretty banal. As he readies for the night's act, he eats lunch and talks about the cars he's owned and goes shopping for sneakers and hats for his crew.

Then, there's praise from adoring fans. A couple of times, Peters is seen off-stage talking to fellow comics, which might qualify as the show's highlights. But, at that point, the bar is pretty low.

So far, "A Day in the Life" leaves much to be desired and raises the question whether Hulu wanted to experiment with original programming on the cheap and if Spurlock signed on for the money.

Tags: television, tv
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