A while ago, I mentioned that Amazon.com was trying something new and different: they would be dipping their toe in the world of scripted original content by ordering pilots for several comedy series, but they would be crowdsourcing the approval process by allowing on-line viewers to determine which shows were ultimately developed for series. They would do the same thing for a handful of shows aimed at children. Last Friday, Amazon posted the pilots for eight potential comedies on their website and made them free* to watch and then vote on. As someone who often thinks that I could do a better job than most network executives, I of course had to give them a look.
The good news is that none of them were straight up terrible; I may not have been drawn to all of them but I at least could see why Amazon decided to at least greenlight these concepts to pilot. Honestly, they were much better overall than I expected them to be for this venture. I was surprised by the star power associated with the pilots; while some of the shows are full of relative unknowns, many of the pilots feature actors that are established and household names. You don’t necessary expect to see John Goodman in a pilot for an on-line series, but there he was.
However, despite the fact that there weren’t any clear clunkers in the bunch, I can’t say that any of these pilots really blew me away either. I definitely enjoyed some more than others, but if none of these shows were developed to series I don’t think I’d be tremendously disappointed. When I first saw the pilot for Lost, I remember being fully engaged and 100% in on the show. I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. I didn’t have anything close to that feeling with any of these pilots, but to be fair I think that my experience with Lost was the exception to the rule. As I’ve mentioned before, pilots – especially for comedies – are notoriously difficult to pull off and are not always good indicators of what a show will turn out to be. Parks and Recreation took 7 or 8 episodes to find its voice; I had bailed on the show after a few episodes, deeming it dreadful, and had to be persuaded to give it another chance. It wound up being one of my favorite shows, but a rocky start meant that I almost wrote the show off. So a bad pilot might grow into a good show and vice versa. Pilots are tricky business, so with that caveat in mind, here are some quick thoughts about the Amazon shows (in alphabetical order):
The fact that Alpha House was my favorite pilot of the bunch will probably come as no surprise to loyal readers as it takes place in the world of politics and that happens to be one of pop culture sweet spots. This is the pilot that has the most star power of the bunch; it not only stars the aforementioned John Goodman, but the cast also includes Mark Consuelos (Mr. Kelly Ripa), Clark Johnson (Homicide, The Wire), Matt Malloy (an instantly recognizable character actor who has been in everything) and even a brief appearance by one Bill Murray. The show follows four Congressmen who share a house on Capitol Hill and while making jokes about politicians and government isn’t exactly difficult, the pilot did a nice job of establishing these characters and setting the table for what a potential series would look like. The strong cast certainly made the most of the material and I was interested to see where the story would go.
Betas is about four friends trying to form a start-up in Silicon Valley; they believe that they have the next big app in BRB, which connects people of similar interests. There aren’t many familiar faces in Betas; other than an appearance by Ed Beagley Jr. (and Moby), the only person I recognized was Jon Daly (the comic, not the golfer). While I thought supporting characters played by Daly and Charlie Saxton were amusing, I didn’t find the leads (Joe Dinicol and Karan Soni) and their relationship at all interesting. I paid far more attention when they weren’t on screen. I also thought Betas felt like it was trying too hard to fit current trends with its focus on apps development. It has the potential to be a show that feel very dated very quickly.
Browsers was among my least favorite of the pilots. This is a workplace comedy that is clearly based on the Huffington Post and Bebe Neuwirth is channeling Arianna Huffington, which explains the ridiculous accent. The show focuses on four new interns hired at the fictional Gush and has the characters spontaneously break into song. A lot. It is kind of like Glee, though it features all original songs rather than covers. Unfortunately, the lyrics to those original songs aren’t very good; I’m fairly certain I could come up with something better and I have zero musical talent (go ask my 4th grade violin teacher). The cast definitely has some pipes, but there were too many inane songs in the pilot and not enough actual character development. I knew I was out on this one within the first few minutes.
Dark Minions is a stop action animation science fiction comedy about two temps working for an evil intergalactic conglomerate. They don’t share their bosses politics – or ambition – but a job is a job, until a romance develops with a rebel fighter on another planet. The voices of the main characters may sound familiar as they are voiced by actors who have recurring roles on The Big Bang Theory. Dark Minions is not 100% finished; stop action animation is very expensive and time consuming, so some of the scenes are done with rougher two dimensional animation. Enough is completed, however, to give you a good idea of what the show will look like visually. I liked Dark Minions and think it has some potential if it goes to series; while it wasn’t laugh out loud funny, I did find myself smiling at several points during the episode. I think there might be a fun show here.
The Onion seems bound and determined to have a TV show; Onion News Empire is their third attempt (following Onion News Network and Onion SportsDome) and I think that this time might indeed be the charm. The premise of their earlier shows was a fake news/sports show and the format became tiresome pretty quickly. The Onion’s satirical articles and headlines work well in print, but there wasn’t enough there to sustain an entire show, especially when we already have some fake news programs that were so much better (The Daily Show and The Colbert Report). Onion News Empire shifts the focus; while there are still segments of a fake news program, the bulk of the show is about the behind the scenes action of the news program. It is still a parody, but instead of relying on parodying the actual news, they are parodying the networks that cover the news; think of it as a parody of HBO’s The Newsroom. I thought the pilot was a little uneven in spots, but it has a great cast (Jeffrey Tambor, Cheyenne Jackson and Chris Masterson) and the media is always prime for some parody.
Supanatural is an animated program very much in the vein of programming that you would see during the Adult Swim block of programming on the Cartoon Network. It’s weird and absurd, but also pretty funny. While I didn’t think the pilot did a great job of explaining the premise, Supanatural follows two street smart friends who defend humanity from supernatural forces, when they aren’t working their minimum wage jobs at the mall. There are lots of great one-liners in the pilot, though I wonder if this is a premise that can sustain an entire series. The jokes mainly derive from the contrast between some sassy women who also are humanity’s only hope. It’s just wacky enough to work, though, and there are a lot of talented people attached to this show (Kristen Schaal is a producer), so I’d be curious to see what they would do creatively if given a series order.
My teacher friends will probably get a kick out of Those Who Can’t, which follows a trio of male teachers who aren’t that much mature than their students. The show stars members of the comedy group The Grawlix and probably does the best job of giving the viewer an idea of what a regular episode of this series would feel like. The pilot is very economical and fleshes out the characters quickly, so it can spend more time on the plot (in the first episode, they attempt to frame a jerky student for drug possession). Lots of stand-up comics are affiliated with the show, which I think is a real strength and speaks well for the show if it goes forward. These are characters that I’d like to spend more time with.
As far as I know, Zombieland is the only one of these pilots that was actually originally developed for network TV. Fox passed on the pilot, based on the movie of the same name that starred Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone. I quite enjoyed Zombieland the movie, but unfortunately the pilot for the TV show just feels like a poor man’s version; it is the same basic plot, just with less famous people in the leads. The pilot doesn’t do much to establish how the TV show will be different from the movie going forward. I just felt like I was watching a recreation of something I’d already seen. Without its own identity, I’m not sure what this show is bringing to the table. Could be good if they keep the fun and quirky vibe of the movie with some new and interesting content, but there just wasn’t enough here that was original.
Alpha House, Onion News Empire and Those Who Can’t are definitely my favorite three of the bunch. Alpha House probably has the best chance at going to series, simply because of the name recognition of the actors attached to it. Some of the other pilots definitely were “on the bubble” for me; I saw enough promise there that they could be interesting going forward, but they were definitely diamonds in the rough. However, my tastes and the tastes of most Americans don’t always line up neatly, so I’ll be curious to see what shows are actually selected to be developed. I don’t know that any of these programs are real game changers, but with Amazon now joining Netflix and cable networks not known for their original programming (see History Channel and A&E) in the television marketplace, things are certainly beginning to get interesting.
*with a one month trial of Amazon Prime