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The New Amazon TV Pilots Ranked, from the Winsomely Promising to the Woefully Stupid

Pity the bleary-eyed TV executive.

The New Amazon TV Pilots Ranked, from the Winsomely Promising to the Woefully Stupid

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from Amazon’s new TV gambit, which puts us regular Joe and Jane Schmoes in the sockless Gucci loafers of small-screen schedulers, it’s that betting on the popularity of a new show based on a pilot – comparable to a book's prologue or a film's first scenes – is largely a game of luck and chance. Plenty of TV shows overcame abominable pilots to become classics of their respective genre (30 Rock), while just as many stuck the landing on the first round and have disappointed since (The Walking Dead).

And yet, Amazon’s offer to let viewers have a real voice in which pilots get picked up for a series order remains irresistible, partly because the bookseller-turned-everything store has managed to attract some very talented stars (John Goodman, Chloe Sevigny) and partly because there’s always the possibility that the next Orange is the New Black>/i> is lurking around, waiting for an appreciative audience.

For the record, Amazon’s answer to the groundbreaking Netflix series appears to be Jill Soloway’s family dramedy Transparent, which stars Jeffrey Tambor as a late-in-life transwoman and Gaby Hoffman, Jay Duplass, and Amy Landecker as her self-absorbed, barely functional adult children. The pilot debuted in February; the full season will be released in late September.

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Amazon’s third “pilot season” offers nothing so stunningly accomplished as Transparent’s debut episode, but its five new shows for adults are a gratifyingly diverse lot in their themes, sensibilities, ambitions, and intended audiences. Like Netflix, Amazon is offering the kind of basic-cable fare you might find on AMC or FX, plus flashes of nipples and the occasional swear words. (The nudity is too spare – and with one exception, too matter-of-fact – to equate it with the male-gaze-facilitating titty shows on Showtime and HBO.)

And there’s certainly a wide range in quality, from director Whit Stillman’s The Cosmopolitans, as winsomely promising as it is unapologetically elitist, to the woefully stupid thriller Hysteria, about a debilitating disease spread by social media (ugh). Here are the five new Amazon pilots, from the most worthy of your time (and a series pickup) to the least:

The Cosmopolitans
As studio filmmaking becomes increasingly homogenized for the global box office, TV has offered itself as the new auteur’s medium. Metropolitan and Damsels in Distress director Whit Stillman brings his tweed-and-jodhpurs sense of romance to The Cosmopolitans, a talky, yearning, almost infuriatingly elegant half-hour that throws around references to Art Basel and Auguste Escoffier. Centering on a group of American expats searching for love in the City of Lights, the series occasionally risks stuffy preciousness (“I couldn't just plunge into some decadent affair”), but is grounded by such melancholy and self-loathing that it never feels less than human. As with his features, Stillman lets his characters indulge in ultra-white-people problems while gently chuckling at them for it.

Adam Brody, Carrie MacLemore, and Jordan Rountree’s fine-boned characters find themselves pursuing different dreams of an extraordinary life, occasionally taking a break to wonder if all they’ve really done by moving to France is just make a terrible life decision. (Hey, it’s still better than grad school.) The tiny but poignant tragedy of their lives is their belief that expat existence is a game they can eventually learn to con – Chloe Sevigny’s snobby fashion journalist refuses to date French men, for example, to ensure greater romantic satisfaction. But of course no amount of arbitrary rules will ease their existential loneliness – or have them be accepted, even by each other, as real Parisians.

Hand of God
If The Cosmopolitans is the kid-gloved dandy who moves to France to recapture the thrill of his junior year abroad at the Sorbonne, Hand of God is the brass-knuckled creep with a barbed-wire tattoo around his neck just in case someone doubts his toughness for a second. For all its aggressive airs, Ben Watkins’ snarl of a drama is rather derivative, channeling the current antihero mode that’s been the default format for the genre for the past decade. The always-watchable Ron Perlman, his hair now woolly and white as a lamb, plays a megalomaniac judge newly convinced that he can chat with God. In the very first scene of the Marc Forster-directed pilot, Pernell Harris (Perlman) speaks in tongues during a self-baptism – or he’s a traumatized loon wading naked in a public fountain muttering a whole lotta gibberish.

The most likely catalyst of Pernell’s supposed powers is the calamitous fate of his grown son; Junior (Johnny Ferro) shot himself in the head after being forced to watch his wife Jocelyn’s (Alona Tal) rape and landed in a coma. Convinced that he can find Jocelyn’s rapist by communicating with his unconscious son, Pernell recruits a vicious criminal (Garret Dillahunt) to do the dirty work of beating up thugs for him. Hand of God’s macho posturing occasionally veers toward the self-parodic – Pernell’s wife (Dana Delaney) squeezes a young preacher’s testicles to emphasize her threats in one scene, and an even more egregious instance finds the show one-upping Game of Thrones’ “sexposition” with its shitsposition, in which Pernell’s business partner (Andre Royo) drops a deuce and some plot details at the same time. No one could accuse Hand of God of tastefulness, but its eagerness to surprise is rather auspicious.

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