- All four new original TV series that Hulu has released in 2019 have been met with critical acclaim, and have an average Rotten Tomatoes critic score of 94%, well above the averages of competitors like Netflix and Amazon.
- Three of these originals — “Shrill,” “Pen15,” and “The Act” — not only star women and revolve around their stories, but also emerged from women’s writing or reporting.
- Hulu VP of original content development Beatrice Springborn said the streamer has for years worked to build relationships with female talent, both in front of and behind the camera, and has seen a lot of repeat business and referrals.
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Hulu’s output of new original TV has been red-hot this year, and much of it’s been led by women.
In February, the streamer released “Pen15,” a nostalgic and inventive trip back to seventh grade starring Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who also co-created the series. The show’s strong word-of-mouth swiftly propelled it to cult status and a 95% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Then, in March, Hulu followed it up with another comedy series, “Shrill,” an adaptation of Lindy West’s memoir starring “Saturday Night Live’s” Aidy Bryant, that has a 91% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Also in March, Hulu released “The Act,” a dark true-crime story about a toxic relationship between a mother and daughter based on reporting for BuzzFeed by Michelle Dean, who co-created the series. It has a 91% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes and has consistently ranked among the top streaming shows based Parrot Analytics’ comprehensive measure of “audience demand.”
All three of these original series not only star women, but emerged from women’s writing or reporting. They are part of an original TV slate from Hulu this year that has been unmatched by competitors Netflix and Amazon in consistency, with its new originals averaging a whopping 94% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes (the fourth released this year was “Ramy”).
At a time when women’s representation in Hollywood, the fight for equal pay, and the Me Too movement are driving the conversation in the entertainment industry, the prominence of women in Hulu’s original programming and the success of their work could help lower barriers to entry at other TV networks and studios.
This success is the result of years of cultivating relationships with talented women, Beatrice Springborn, Hulu’s VP of original content development, told Business Insider. Women made up only 27% of the key behind-the-scenes TV roles industrywide (creators, directors, writers, and so on) in 2018, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
“It’s been in our DNA to hire female showrunners since Craig [Erwich, Hulu’s SVP of originals] and I first got here,” said Springborn, who has been at the company for five years.
Springborn pointed to “11.22.63,” one of Hulu’s first limited series that came out in early 2016, which had Bridget Carpenter as the showrunner. The series is based on a Stephen King book and stars James Franco, but it was Carpenter who brought it to the screen.
Springborn said female showrunners like Carpenter had helped Hulu built a great referral network among women and that the streamer had seen a lot of women creators, producers, and writers come back to work on multiple projects.
Liz Tigelaar, who was a showrunner on “Casual” (which scored Hulu a Golden Globe nomination), is returning as a showrunner on “Little Fires Everywhere,” a highly anticipated adaptation of Celeste Ng’s hit novel starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.
Mindy Kaling, whose show “The Mindy Project” came to Hulu for seasons 4-6 after being canceled by Fox, is also returning to Hulu for a new project: a “Four Weddings and a Funeral” reboot series, which Kaling co-wrote.
Then there’s the runaway success of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It became the first streaming show to win a best drama Emmy in 2017, and a handful of women involved in the show have won Emmys for their work on it in front of and behind the camera.
From the specific, something universal
Springborn said Hulu’s goal with its originals is to make “very specific stories that are told in a way that they are universally appealing.”
That’s true of both “Pen15” and “Shrill,” as well as its latest hit comedy, “Ramy,” which follows a young Egyptian-American man played by comedian (and show co-creator) Ramy Youssef dealing with love, career, and finding meaning in life. “Ramy,” which has been renewed for a second season, was released in April and has a 97% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes.
“Pen15” is striking for that mix of specificity and universality. The series draws heavily from the personal experiences — from awkward to joyful to painful — of the creators, Erskine and Konkle told Business Insider. But that specificity also makes it resonate with many people’s middle-school experiences.
Konkle said they wanted to make the series “not shiny, more like a memory.” It’s meant to be a real version of seventh grade, not a Disney-channel version.
In realizing that vision, Konkle described Hulu’s approach as hands-off but creatively supportive. Erskine said there were “no egos involved” on Hulu’s side.
Springborn said Hulu strives to be a “very creator-friendly environment.” That is a standard line in Hollywood — who wants to be considered “creator unfriendly”? — but the types of projects Hulu has shepherded to release lends it credence.
“Pen15” came to Hulu in the form of a 15-minute pilot presentation, which Erskine and Konkle had made with Lonely Island that hadn’t originally gone anywhere. The presentation had been leaked around Hollywood and gained attention with assistants, who urged their bosses to check it out, Erskine said.
The plot was Maya and Anna, playing a version of their seventh-grade selves, getting ready for their first dance, delusional about what they thought they could get out of it. Maya gets fingered in a back room at the dance, and then Maya’s mom bursts into the dance because the pair were out too late. Even at that early stage, it was a bit boundary-pushing and idiosyncratic for a traditional network.
“There weren’t a lot of people dying to make it,” Konkle said.
But it attracted passionate supporters in some corners, including at Hulu, which recently greenlit a second season of the show. (“Shrill” will also return for a season two.)
A remarkable consistency compared to the competition
Hulu is looking to keep its success with original TV rolling in the second half of 2019. The critical reception will be difficult to maintain, as the four new original shows it has released in 2019 have a 94% average critic score on Rotten Tomatoes — far above its rivals.
Netflix has a whole manner of shows it brands “originals,” including co-productions and acquisitions. But if you look at just Netflix’s own new scripted original TV series released in 2019 — excluding kids’ shows, animated series, and foreign-language content — around a dozen have enough critic reviews (usually at least five) to qualify for a Rotten Tomatoes critic score, and those average 75%.
And for every “Sex Education” (91%) and “Russian Doll” (96%), Netflix has a disaster like Idris Elba’s “Turn up Charlie” (50%) or “Huge in France” (50%). Of course, Netflix’s output is at least three times that of Hulu on the original TV front, and more when you count co-productions.
Amazon, which is in the midst of rebuilding its strategy with a new studio head, has only released one true original TV series this year, “Hanna,” which has a 64% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes.
It remains to be seen if Hulu will be able to translate its originals’ critical acclaim into subscriber growth. While positive critical reception can help a streaming service build buzz and boost sign-ups, there’s not a direct correlation to a show’s popularity. Still, the service is growing fast, up around 40% year-over-year, recently hitting 28 million subscribers in the US (Netflix’s US figure is still far ahead at 60 million). But an aggressive discounting strategy has helped Hulu get there, and it still has not launched internationally.
Regardless, the focus on women’s stories will continue.
Hulu has a “Veronica Mars” reboot and Mindy Kaling’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral” series coming in July. Then this fall it has “Dollface,” a comedy about a young woman reconnecting with her female friends after getting dumped. And a woman-led “High Fidelity” reboot, starring Zoe Kravitz, is also on the slate — not to mention Hulu’s returning shows like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and ITV co-production “Harlots.”
“The area we are really excited about are the comedies,” said Springborn, who emphasized “Dollface” in particular.
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