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.
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:
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.
And now we’re in the weeds. Submarine’s Craig Roberts, only 23, stars in this pilot season’s hoariest series, a sitcom set in a 1980s New Jersey country club. After his father (Richard Kind) suffers a heart attack and confesses that his marriage is a sham, NYU student David (Roberts) decides that, rather than intern at his dad’s accounting firm for the summer before his senior year, he’s going to enjoy life by becoming a tennis instructor. David has a blonde aerobics-instructor girlfriend Karen (Gage Golightly) – the eighties details are obvious, down to the geyser-like ponytail shooting atop her head, and yet not fully convincing. But because Karen has long-term plans for their relationship, David lets his eye wander to a mysterious brunette (Alexandra Socha).
And that’s really all the stakes that Red Oaks has to offer: blonde or brunette, to have fun or not. (Adding to the show’s slight misogyny is David’s shrewish mother (Jennifer Grey), who scolds her husband for ruining her day with his heart attack.) David Gorden Green’s direction doesn’t really improve Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs’ script; the sole bright spot is David’s poshly accented playboy boss Nasser (a scene-stealing Ennis Esmer). There’s some potentially interesting power dynamics inherent to the country-club setting – a silver-haired Paul Reiser appears as the kind of tennis student with more money than manners – but the show’s reliance on Catskills-worthy groaners and insistence on having a good time makes a full season – let alone a second year – difficult to imagine.
Comedy writer-director Jay Chandrasekhar does a better job of sketching a season-long road map in his soapy sitcom Really, but not by much. Following four long-term couples who get together to drink too much wine and smoke a few blunts, Really would pair nicely with FX’s Married and You’re the Worst, two other disappointing takes on foul-mouthed hetero love that are nowhere near as edgy as they think they are. Most of the pilot takes place at a dinner party where the guests talk about a fake reality show called “America’s Smartest Model” – a scenario that’s dull enough when it involves real people, and downright excruciating when it comprises eight characters, including the protagonist Jed (Chandrasekhar), who aren’t developed enough to have distinct personalities. (Actually, except for Jed’s priggish wife Lori (Sarah Chalke), all the characters seem to be more or less the same person.)
There’s a small measure of progressivism in Jed and Lori’s interracial marriage – enough that watching the couple go through the banalities of sitcom life – jokes about snoring, kids interrupting sex, and birthday blowjobs – feels faintly refreshing. But the comedy doesn’t quite translate from the page to the screen; the funniest gag involves the drunk host (Luka Jones) crashing into his own glass door. Chandrasekhar’s default expression – a fart-suppressing grimace – serves him well when he discovers two of his friends (Selma Blair and Travis Schuldt) having an affair, but less so when it appears in every other scene in the pilot.
Rounding out the rear is the laughably silly thriller Hysteria, an admittedly well-crafted collection of mysteries within mysteries undone by the (SPOILER) witless premise of a crippling ailment that travels through viral videos. If you can get over that revelation (revealed at the end of the pilot but telegraphed earlier in the episode), Hysteria could make for a trashy but expertly paced guilty pleasure.
Mena Suvari stars as Logan Harlen, a prickly psychiatrist studying a pair of teenage girls with severe, debilitating spasms. Captured on a video first uploaded to the Internet with the best of intentions, the tremors make one of the girls, the completely incapacitated Cassie (Jenessa Grant), a target of cyber-bullying by her classmates and strangers on the web. The series’ scope expands to encompass Cassie’s family, including her 17-year-old sister Audra’s (Ella Rae Peck) dalliances with an older cop, as well as a harrowing event from Logan’s childhood that turns out to be the biggest lure for more episodes. It’s unfortunate, then, that the series primarily focuses on the escalating epidemic of the spasms, the narrative result of a pun gone stupidly wrong.