How Hulu Is Stepping Up Its Game With 'Casual' and Hollywood's Biggest Talents

by Stacy Lambe 10:55 AM PDT, October 07, 2015
Photo: Hulu

Fall TV is an ever-crowded space of new offerings from network TV. Now, streaming services have established their place with a growing roster of original, scripted releases -- and this season, Hulu is ready for primetime.

When it first launched in 2008, it -- like its film-heavy counterpart, Netflix -- was designed to bring a vast catalog of existing shows and films to Internet-savvy viewers hungry to consume content on their own time. A joint venture between the major networks -- ABC, The CW, Fox, and NBC -- and their parent companies, Hulu set itself apart by having access to shows the day after they aired on TV.

By 2011, both Hulu and Netflix set their sights on original content, with the latter quickly acquiring big-name projects, such as House of Cards, produced by David Fincher, and a new season of Arrested Development. Hulu, on the other hand, rolled out cheaply produced, forgettable series. Its first success came with the launch of East Los High, a Spanish-language Degrassi-like teen soap, that premiered the same year Netflix started rolling out its series -- Arrested Development, House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black -- to critical praise and fanfare.

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While Netflix ignited the binge-watching craze with its growing roster of scripted programs, and the launch of Amazon Prime added to the competition with star-studded test pilots, Hulu lagged behind. It deepened its vaults of real-time content, with notable deals with FX and Comedy Central. Yet, Hulu hadn't been able to create the same buzz for shows like Deadbeat, The Hotwives, or The Wrong Mans. All three shows came with star power -- in the form of Cat Deeley, Casey Wilson, and James Corden -- but outside of Wrong Mans, which was also a BBC-produced acquisition, they lacked the same creative prestige of Netflix or Amazon's offerings.

That is until now.

By the end of 2014, Hulu seemingly renewed its focus on original, scripted content with a succession of buzzworthy announcements for new shows produced by J.J. Abrams, Jason Reitman, and the team behind Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. "We look for the best creators," Hulu Content Chief Craig Erwich tells ETonline. "It's really who's the top talent? How do we create a home for them? How do we support them? How do we find peoplewho are passionate about their vision and can execute it?"

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"I think it establishes that we're a home for those kinds of things," Erwich says. "Talent is a magnet for other talent. For instance, we cast Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan and Hugh Dancy in The Way. They want to work with Jason Katims and Jessica Goldberg because of Friday Night Lights."

Abrams' upcoming series, 11/22/63, an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, has already added Chris Cooper, James Franco, Josh Duhamel, and T.R. Knight to its star-studded cast.

The first of those talent pools to debut online was Difficult People, produced by Amy Poehler and starring Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner. An angrier, more pop culture-savvy version of Will & Grace, the show garnered some of Hulu's best critical praise since East Los High and became a word-of-mouth hit among the millennial set. (The show has already been renewed for a season two.)

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It will be followed by Casual, Hulu's best offering to date, which premieres on Oct. 7. A new comedy produced by director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air), it's a slow-burn of a story about a divorced mother (Michaela Watkins, The Trophy Wife) who moves with her daughter into her brother's house. If it gets the attention it deserves, it'll be among the service's first real Emmy contenders. The show should find fans in viewers of Transparent looking for another family dramedy to provide a stopgap until the Emmy-winning series' return to Amazon on Dec. 2.

Unlike Netflix and Amazon, Hulu is setting itself apart by stepping away from the binge-watching model and returning to the weekly release of traditional TV series.

"The greatest thing about television is the watercooler and this just kind of helps to preserve and celebrate that," Erwich offers, adding: "The other thing that's really interesting is a lot of our creators have a very direct relationship with their fans. Julie and Billy were born from social media so that weekly release facilitates them maintaining that relationship."

The move will certainly be tested by audiences when all 26 episodes of The Mindy Project are released during the 2015-2016 season. Not limited to developing brand new ideas, Hulu made headlines when it picked up Mindy Kaling's show for a fourth season after it was canceled by Fox. With an invested fan base, the show should add to Hulu's expanding audience.

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While Hulu is growing its roster of scripted programs, its rollout probably won't feel complete until 11/22/63 and The Way debut in 2016, creating a seamless rotation of scripted programming. However, the promise of what's to come is worth holding out for.

"Next year will be Aaron Paul's return to television after Breaking Bad and I think that's going to be a major event," Erwich says.