Looking at Amazon’s New TV Pilots

Amazon have made five new TV pilots available, and audiences will decide which ones get taken to series. We break 'em down...

With the latest batch, we have now entered the third round of Amazon crowd-testing a slew of pilots before deciding what they want to move forward with. Like in the past, user comments and feedback decide which of these first chapters get to become series, with Amazon Instant Video giving you the power to watch and sound off.

Audiences helped Alpha House into production in round one and picked Jill Solloway’s Transparent and Chris Carter’s The After from the second round to move ahead. Amazon specifically wants to see what shows we like and believe have the legs to run for years and years. It’s our call.

With social media’s increasing influence on television, and audiences wanting more power and control, it feels like a natural progression for fans to finally be in charge of the green light. But in case you don’t have time to check them all out or are still feigning skepticism, we’ll let you know what Amazon’s most promising offers are, and which are the most disappointing.

The Cosmopolitans

Director Whit Stillman (Damsels in Distress) is not one to churn out films, having only made a humble, complete four pictures, and none since 2011. That’s why The Cosmopolitans is so exciting, and it’s a delight to have his precise, Woody Allen-esque voice in a series (maybe). The pilot follows rich, entitled, ex-pat prep school kids traversing through Paris to find love and fulfillment, headlined by frequent Stillman collaborators Adam Brody and Chloe Sevigny.

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Yet, the real gem is Carrie MacLemore as she dissects everything she sees with a precise, inscrutable nature mixed with naivety. It’s always fascinating to just watch what her face is doing. The pilot is witty, insightful, biting, and arguably has the most to say out of any of the current Amazon offerings. The dialogue just flows, making The Cosmopolitans a comfort to be around.

Stillman even brings a level of authenticity to the project, having gone through similar experiences himself. The show is full of opinions and decadence, and parties, but you don’t find yourself annoyed with these wanderers, and are rather intrigued to see more. You’re left with something that shows promise and very much feels like a pilot (it could double as a short film, even), and characters you want to keep being around and getting to see more and more of, even if it might not be that groundbreaking in terms of concept. It’s also easy on the eyes as more often than not it resembles what Wes Anderson: The Series might look like.

Red Oaks

The always-interesting David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Eastbound and Down) presents a pilot set in 1985, chronicling David’s (the wonderful Craig Roberts from the equally wonderful Submarine) summer job at the Red Oaks country club in Jersey as an assistant tennis pro. While billed as “Caddyshack with tennis,” this is surely to appeal to the younger audience with an abundance of breasts and pop culture references slung around, not to mention the all-too-familiar despondency of having a run down summer job when you deserve better. There are stoners, jocks, doomed love interests, and over-caring parents (played perfectly by Richard Kind and Jennifer Grey), and everything feels reminiscent of things like Freaks and Geeks and Dazed and Confused, but in the best possible ways.

These touches aren’t derivative though, but rather Green wanting to skewer and authentically recreate the sex comedies and coming-of-age films from the ‘80s. This has all the makings of them, right down to its filmic look (and honestly, one of the better reasons Green is the one behind this show, is his eye). It’s predictable, but in a comforting way, and shows a world with a deep well of stories to pull from.

Really

Frequent comedy collaborator Jay Chandrasekhar (Super Troopers) has created yet another show that looks at a number of couples in various stages of a relationship as they struggle to get by and worry about becoming middle aged…this time in Chicago (aww, I miss you Happy Endings). This is a frustrating pilot because Chandrasekhar (who also directed the round two pilot, The Rebels, which didn’t get picked up) normally knows what he’s doing.

There are a lot of talented people in this cast (Sarah Chalke, Luka Jones, Selma Blair, not to mention Chandrasekhar himself, all doing standout work), but it’s not covering any new ground at all. We see couples complaining about going to dinner parties and seeing their friends while they wish they had more sex, their children were under better control, and that they worked less. Alcohol is indulged in, sex is obsessed over, and it all feels too familiar.

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Again, none of this is bad, and a lot of the banter between Chalke and Chandrasekhar is fun (albeit, somewhat tired) stuff, but there seems to be a reason shows like this are usually quickly canceled; we’ve seen them done enough times before, and with fare like FX’s Married already filling this gap now, the cast and chemistry may not be enough to keep this one alive.

Hand of God

When it comes to Amazon’s new potential dramas, they’re not afraid to pull out the big guns with loud, flashy programming like Marc Forster (World War Z) has done here. Ron Perlman plays a corrupt judge who undergoes a mental breakdown and believes that God is talking to him through his ventilator-bound son as a means to help him enact vengeance on the rapist who destroyed his family. While an incredibly convoluted premise, it’s one that could actually be pulled off decently if given the right balance, and playing with how sane Perlman’s character actually is. More than anything, it feels reminiscent of the failed Starz series Boss with Kelsey Grammer, which was another series that didn’t just chew the scenery, but outright feasted on it.

Perlman and Dana Delaney are the right actors to carry this heavy (in both subject matter, and –handedness) fodder, but it goes too far. There are suicide attempts, rape, heavy violence, and humiliation. Every moment feels like it’s trying to shock or offend you, as we’re presented with yet another anti-hero that does some pretty horrendous things, and you’re left wondering why you should be rooting for any of these people. Ray Donovan is a recent show that often feels like pushing the envelope is its mantra, but Hand of God outright fills that envelope with grisly murder and rape photos, and pushes it even further.

Hysteria

Shaun Cassidy of Blue Bloods fame has created Amazon’s other drama pilot, which is apparently based on real events. A girl in Texas begins experiencing involuntary tics, which then weirdly begin spreading throughout her dance team as others begin to have symptoms. Mena Suvari heads the cast as a neurologist with darker problems of her own.

With Hysteria, the concept of these spreading tics, and why they’re spreading, is compelling, yet borders on implausible. But things get even more complicated when we learn that Logan’s (Suvari) childhood best friend has been murdered. There’s an ominous tattooed blackmailer, a covered-in-burns convict, making for a rather incredulous balancing act.

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There are a number of disparate threads in play, like if the tics are related to this death, if Logan used to have them herself, and there are more than a few conveniences that happen in order to make the pilot work. If these elements manage to tie together in a satisfying way, the show could be great, but it very much feels like just more and more mystery is being thrown at you (in an already full premise) in the hopes of keeping you hooked. It also doesn’t help that the “Big Bad” of the show may literally be social media (I can’t even…).

The Verdict

Amazon’s latest slate of pilots feels fairly representative of how their past pilot seasons have been. There’s some promising material here (The Cosmopolitans and Red Oaks more than deserve to become series), and certainly some other stuff that hardly feels necessary in an already oversaturated market. We won’t know for some time as to which series Amazon decides to go forward with, but there’s a lot of talent on display here, and it certainly seems as if Amazon is having no struggle finding big names in terms of directors and stars to headline their projects. With their round two shows arriving this month, this might be the start of Amazon’s rise to streaming original programming dominance.

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