It’s now the fourth round of Amazon’s pilot season. With Amazon, a pilot’s success depends on the audience’s opinion and approval as shows with the greatest rating will move forward. Your opinion does matter here, now more than ever, actually.
Amazon has seen a lot of success lately, first with Transparent winning the Golden Globe this year for Best Comedy and making history in the process, beating out Orange is the New Black and Netflix along the way. Then mere days later they signed Woody Allen to write and direct his first ever series. They’ve certainly been on a roll, and so it’s particularly exciting to look at their next batch of prospective pilots to look at what creative endeavors they currently think are worth our time.
So let’s look at what the service has to offer up next, thinking about which of these might move forward and if any of them might be their next Transparent.
MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE
Helmed by Frank Spotnitz, The X-Files second in command and master of mythology, it’s not hard to see why he’d be attracted to this material. Based on Phillip K Dick’s alternate-history novel (a favorite genre of mine), we see a world where the Allies in fact lost World War II. This loss sees the United States divided into three regions. One controlled by Germany, the other by Japan, and the area in between (located in the Rocky Mountains) is a relatively neutral safe zone. It’s just mostly, you know, under Nazi rule.
The pilot masterfully introduces you to all of this, never force-feeding you history but rather naturally respecting your intelligence. It’s also perhaps the most gorgeous, meticulously composed series that Amazon has put together, even more so than Mozart in the Jungle or last round’s failed The Cosmopolitans. The cinematography is really stunning stuff here.
Our perspective is through Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) and Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), who both are from opposite regions. These are fine performances, but it’s clear that the ideas and look of the show are what people are going to be taking away from it, not the performances.
This is Phillip K. Dick we’re talking about, so you can expect some appropriately wonderful ideas being pushed forward here. For instance, there are rampant Americanized Nazis (not to mention ever-present Swastikas) and the idea that a Parkinson’s-riddled Hitler is still alive and pulling the strings. It’s chilling in a high-concept sci-fi way that’s very different from most of Dick’s work. You can easily see how a series could live here.
Created by newcomer Lindsey Stoddart and directed by Mark Waters of Mean Girls fame, the territory of female cliques and subcultures is certainly in the right hands here. Leslie Bibb stars as the titular Salem Rogers who used to be the height of fame in the supermodel world, even married to Jason Priestley, before being shipped off to rehab. Now, finally out (well, kicked out) of rehab after a ten-year stint, Salem tries to seize the world but things don’t quite go according to plan. It’s half The Comeback and half Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23.
This comedy also knows the right people to populate its world with. Bibb’s supporting cast is made up by SNL’s Rachel Dratch as Salem’s assistant, not to mention Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle), Scott Adsit (30 Rock), Brad Morris (Playing House), and more. Bibb and Dratch’s chemistry is already amazing and Dratch’s deadpan to Bibb’s extremes are the major takeaway here. It’s a winning pair.
THE NEW YORKER PRESENTS
Something a little different here, the come-to-life version of the award-winning magazine is presented as a docuseries, hardly the conventional kind. Rather, The New Yorker Presents attempts to emulate what the experience of reading “The New Yorker” feels like. In the case of this pilot, it means getting a short film, a poem, a documentary, cartoons, and an interview, with every episode promising this level of varied culture.
This is no doubt a strong presentation package. The short film in particular which features Alan Cumming as God acting opposite Brett Gelman in an absurdist story by Simon Rich (Man Seeking Woman) and directed by Troy Miller (Arrested Development, Community) is something special. Jonathan Demme’s doc on the biologist Tyrone Hayes is really insightful, and they even make the interview a fairly engaging piece. It can’t help but all feel a little boastful and self-important though, which I guess is maybe something “The New Yorker” can’t avoid, but some people may not see the point of this.
A quirky comedy brought to you by Robin Schiff, writer of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, and Brad Silberling, the director of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, it chronicles Josh Casaubon as the lethargic Logan Wood. Logan is the typical sort of slacker protagonist who yearns to grow up but is too busy packing another bowl to do so. Logan’s quest to mature which sends him back home to his pot-farming parents is hardly original stuff, but his turn teaching at a yoga studio bears some results. Granted, a lot of the typical zen, yoga stereotypes that have been flung around are resorted to here, but the setting and fluid nature of Logan is encouraging. The script, while surprisingly light on the laughs, offers a strong cast to make up for it, which includes Paget Brewster (Community), Lyndsy Fonseca (How I Met Your Mother), Andrea Savage (Episodes), and Kris Kristofferson.
Brought to you by Samuel Baum (Lie to Me) and Sam Shaw (Manhattan, Masters of Sex), this hour-long is centered around the Paxson family and their famous gun company. Richard Paxson (True Blood’s Sam Trammell doing some stellar work) is thrown back into this life and family he’s escaped from, like people often are in pilots. It’s kind of like if the Bluths had a gun business.
You’d think that Cocked would have a bit narrower of an entry point than the other pilots here, but it surprisingly doesn’t dig that deep into gun culture, instead focusing more on the Paxson family and the dangerous deeds that they do. There’s a lot of promise in seeing how this dysfunctional family continues to unravel, especially when the cast consists of Jason Lee (My Name is Earl), Dreama Walker (Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23), Laura Fraser (Breaking Bad), and Brian Dennehy. Throw in a murder subplot and you’ve got the makings for some engaging, albeit heavy-handed storytelling. All it needs to do is desperately shed the Sons of Anarchy vibes and be more of its own thing.
An hour-long that’s the blackest of black comedies, created by Cris Cole and executive produced by Shawn Ryan (The Shield, and the all-too-brief Terriers), it’s almost like a television adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game.
The show (which is based on Cris Cole’s original British series of the same name, with the remake actually beginning as an FX project) sees four over-the-hill friends (a wonderfully cast Michael Imperioli, Steve Zahn, Romany Malco, and Ben Chaplin) visiting their exceedingly wealthy friend (Billy Zane) at his exotic resort in Belize.
Things take a terrifying turn at the resort in what looks like what would make up a fantastic series, unfortunately, only the final act of this pilot carries that momentum. The backstory and Lost-like malaise with the norm that fill up most of the episode work well, but more of the insane island madness is what people are going to want. Even starting there and showing their home life via flashbacks (like Lost) would have been a more engaging presentation model here. It looks like a great show that has leagues to say on the topic of friendship, but it’s a slow, average pilot.
POINT OF HONOR
Point of Honor is a lot of fun if you enjoy war re-enactments performed by community theater students at a hostel. It’s a struggling, foreign, bewildering experience that you can kind of see the point of if you squint hard enough. It’s just hard to get there with all of the big, flashy moments going off in your face (cue “Amazing Grace”).
It’s a little surprising that this is such a misfire, considering Randall Wallace, who penned Pearl Harbor and Braveheart, wrote it and Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel) directed it. Right from the start it feels like this should be airing alongside Reign on the CW.
A young cast flounders through material above their heads. Constant attention to historical authenticity is disregarded, especially when it comes to dialogue, which doesn’t feel aged in the slightest. The big premise here is that John Rhodes, the eldest of his siblings finds himself having freed his Slaves and agreeing with the North, but still siding with the South. And therein is the convoluted story. Rhodes is torn between sides as he feels allegiances to both and we watch the sloppy crossfire of everything in between.
While The Man in the High Castle is the clear standout here, with Selma Rogers also being a fun time, none of this material feels like their best work, or even their most promising pilot season.
The pressure is going to be on for them to continue to deliver and prove themselves after their recent success, and with them presumably now being more selective it should be interesting to see which squeak by. It’s worth noting that Amazon all of a sudden canceled Chris Carter’s recently greenlit The After, so perhaps they are getting more critical. Amazon also has six childrens’ programs up for selection, four of which are animated, as the network shows that its scope is growing even wider.
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