Amazon Instant Video started this year’s first wave of pilot seasons. Last year’s yielded the award-winning Transparent, so there’s plenty of anticipation for this year’s crop of would-be television series.
Here’s how it works. Amazon releases seven television pilots, and fans vote on which one gets picked up for its own series. There are a lot of heavy hitters this year, and while I have my favorites, I’m not sure which one will make the cut. Here’s the skinny on all seven pilots.
The Man in the High Castle
You don’t even need to watch this pilot to know it’ll bring geeky goodness. Hollywood has given us Phillip K. Dick appetizers for decades – A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, and Total Recall to name a few – and now it’s time for the main course. Sweetening the pot further is the involvement of producer Ridley Scott who’s no stranger to Dick novels. He directed Blade Runner which was based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Now, he takes on Dick’s Hugo award winning The Man in the High Castle, his magnum opus.
The Man in the High Castle fills these immense shoes. After the opening credits which features an ominous rendition of “Edelweiss” and shows us the Germans taking over the Eastern United States and the Japanese conquering the Western United States during an alternate world’s World War II, it drops us into this bleak reality.
The performances are crisp and spot on, the action doesn’t give you time to breathe, there are so many double and triple twists that you’ll have to watch the pilot a couple of times to catch everything, and the ending hooks you. In short, The Man in the High Castle earns its spot as my Amazon pilot front runner.
It does tweak the story a bit, but so did Blade Runner and that didn’t detract from the movie’s greatness.
Check out the aforementioned opening.
Verdict: The best of the Amazon pilots, The Man in the High Castle is a must see even if you have to wait until it goes to DVD.
Salem Rogers: Model of the Year 1998
Salem Rogers is another big debut but of the half-hour comedy variety. It also offers more of Leslie Bibb (About a Boy) and Rachel Dratch (SNL) than we ever had before. Both of these comediennes are underrated and it’s great to see them fuel their own series, but they’re playing familiar characters. Bibb is an abrasive supermodel, making Dratch’s put-upon assistant’s life hell. You could also look at Bibb’s Rogers as one of the grown, nasty teens from one of director Mark Waters’ earlier projects Mean Girls.
Despite the retreading of old roles and stories, Salem Rogers delivers enough laughs to make it a solid competitor in the Amazon Pilot war. I like the way they tell the story, too. There’s a six month time gap between what we see during the pilot and the pilot’s opening and ending, and I think the show has plenty to work with should it get picked up. You also can’t go wrong with Bibb and Dratch. The show knows where its strength is.
Verdict: A solid if not predictable installment by actors Bibb and Dratch, and director Mark Waters.
I’m not sure if Down Dog was supposed to be a comedy or a coming-of-age story. It doesn’t work as either. That’s not a knock on the actors involved, they gave some good performances. Paget Brewster (Criminal Minds) and Lyndsy Fonseca (How I Met Your Mother) create a decent love triangle with newcomer Josh Casuabon, but they weren’t given much material.
The dramedy – I guess I’ll call it a dramedy – is set in a Los Angeles yoga studio and throws as many unfunny comedy gimmicks at us as it can. The main character and lead yoga instructor is the product of a mother who smoked dope while pregnant. And of course we get to see the character in utero: take that, Look Who’s Talking. According to Down Dog, a stoned fetus equals a laidback, handsome adult offspring, but I say that genetics and environment play more of a role.
We hear a flat narrator break down the yoga instructor’s life so far. Yawn. The instructor has equally snooze inducing sex. It takes talent to make sex look that boring. Brewster and Fonseca inject some spice but it’s not enough to reconcile the lack of laughs and lifelessness of this bore of a dramedy. Yeah, I think it’s a dramedy.
Verdict: Too bad Brewster and Fonseca got stuck on such a lackluster offering. Too bad I can’t ask for those thirty minutes back.
The New Yorker Presents
This pilot is the most difficult one to categorize. The New Yorker Presents does an amicable job of converting The New Yorker, one of the most respectable magazines, into a television series.
I enjoyed the episode. Many of the articles were familiar to me and I loved how this series made the material accessible to a wider audience. There’s a moment during the documentary where someone mentions – and I’m paraphrasing here – that information needs to be available and accessible to a wider audience because what people don’t know can hurt them. Even with this lofty goal, I can see why voters on IMDB rated the program so low. It’s still The New Yorker.
No amount of cartoon interludes could jazz up – and boy, do they ever jazz up – a program that has limited appeal or has the appeal for an audience more likely to tune into PBS instead of Amazon. Still, the pilot is wonderful. It has balance and depth. You get a short film (that feels a bit out of place), a documentary, an interview, and even the recitation of a poem. The latter has some unsettling camera shots of a bearded Andrew Garfield (Amazing Spider-man), but outside the lone willies moment, The New Yorker Presents offers a lot to viewers. It deserves to get picked up somewhere even if it doesn’t make it on Amazon.
Verdict: A great conversion of The New Yorker into a television show. This could open the fabled magazine to a wider audience.
Truth time: I’ve never watched Cris Cole’s original UK series of the same name, so I can’t compare the two. I do know that Ben Chaplin, who plays Joe in this version, played Billy Zane’s role in the UK version. I also know that Cole worked with Shawn Ryan (The Shield) to bring Mad Dogs to the United States. With that out of the way, I’ll start by saying that the US version of Mad Dogs is a pressure cooker.
It starts out with a hint of comedy, glossed over something sinister. Steve Zahn (Dallas Buyers Club) and Romany Malco (Weeds) have a knack for playing off-beat characters, and their talents shine here as do the talents of Chaplin, Zane and Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos). The estranged friends, who are now 40-somethings, have gathered to Belize to celebrate their friend Milo’s (Zane) early retirement.
Milo owns the greatest villa this side of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and it’s all fun and games until the gloss of chuckles begins to crack. Milo’s in more trouble than you can shake a spear at and his friends don’t know a hundredth of what he’s gotten into until they find themselves in the middle of a murder conspiracy.
The acting, directing and writing work in this pilot. The US Mad Dogs has me interested in the UK version, but I don’t know how much story there is to this series. Clearly, there’s a lot of shady things going on, but there’s only one clear conflict and while I think they’ll do a good job of complicating the central conflict, I don’t know if they can add anything else that’s as juicy as murder—except more murder.
I enjoyed this episode and I think it could work as a series, but in a strange way, it works as a standalone.
Verdict: Another great Amazon pilot but this episode stands out because it has the strongest sense of character. You feel like you’ve known these characters as long as Milo.
Cocked was a lot of fun, but the story was okay. Just okay. I expected more from a show that features Jason Lee (My Name is Earl) and Sam Trammell (True Blood). The supporting actors featured character actors that I hold in high regard: Brian Dennehy (Montague in Romeo + Juliet) and Mark Christopher Lawrence (Chuck’s Big Mike). All of these actors gave their all but this story about a dysfunctional, gun-peddling family is so nuts that it’s weird for the sake of being weird.
The prodigal son (Trammell) gets roped back into the family business after his life’s threatened (by an unknown assailant). He floats a new campaign that’ll get these gun nuts back in black, but his ads that focus on “Guns for Gays” comes off as pandering. The majority of the family hates the idea because they work in a macho business, but the writing didn’t commit to an honest dialogue. When the new commercial succeed the characters involved either didn’t care to the issue in the first place or they’re too stoned to care. In fact, the script devolves into breasts, bullets, and blow.
There’s plenty of room to make a stand and/or express both sides of the gun control issue, but Cocked plays lip service, opting to have fun instead. There’s nothing wrong with fun. I just think they missed a great opportunity.
Verdict: Despite the heavy subject matter, Cocked uses gun control as a backdrop for a dramedy that pushes sex, drugs, and metal slugs.
Point of Glory
To say that Point of Glory was difficult to get through would be an understatement. They do an adequate job of the history, but the rest of the show was one hot mess: a dash of modern slang, half-hearted attempts to show other reasons for the war besides slavery (yes, there were other reasons the two sides fought), and cardboard cut-out characters. I’d stick with other Civil War offerings.
Verdict: Skip it. There are countless other Civil War movies, TV shows, and mini-series that do a better job.