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Amazon Prime has had a heck of a year- launching a critically acclaimed award winning series (Transparent) and a new series that garnered favorable reviews (Mozart Jungle). But getting a hit or two under one’s belt comes with an interesting side effect: pressure to continue performing at a high level. So, when I sat down to check out Amazon Prime’s new set of pilots, I was excited to see what was on deck as potential follow-ups for Transparent. The results, I’m sorry to say, weren’t all that promising. In fact, they were pretty disappointing.
But, really, a series of disappointing pilots isn’t all that uncommon in television. Most networks order a large number of shows to produce a pilot, then winnow things down significantly before ordering a show to series. And Amazon Prime is no different. The only major difference is that Amazon Prime lets its users watch and vote on which shows are worth a series order and which should be sent back to the shelf. This year, Amazon Prime put out thirteen new pilots for viewers: six children’s shows, six shows aimed at the adult demographic, and one news story show. I watched the six adult programs and have rendered my judgment below. All the pilots are currently available to stream on Amazon Prime, and viewers are invited to share their thoughts via a survey once they finish watching.
Down Dog – Skip It
In Down Dog, a vapid yoga instructor (who happens to be exceedingly good-looking and irresistible to women) is left trying to figure out how to run his yoga studio after his longtime girlfriend (and the business side of the studio) leaves him. It’s just as dull and unnecessary as it sounds. The pilot is aiming for a comedic tone but comes off extremely flat. I don’t think I laughed once. Josh Casaubon play Logan, the show’s lead, and he has some charm but the character is so one note and unintelligent that it’s hard to see how the show can possibly build around the character.
Another crucial element of the pilot is Logan’s girlfriend (or, by the end of the pilot, ex-girlfriend), Amanda, portrayed by Paget Brewster. Amanda is a put together, intelligent business woman, who leaves Logan because she believes he’s cheating on her and he won’t propose to her after several years of dating. Sure, Logan isn’t actually cheating on her (although he does sleep with a co-worker mere moments after their break-up), but I can’t fault Amanda for dumping Logan. I found Amanda to be far more likeable than Logan, and would have much rather watched a show about her dumping her awful leech of a boyfriend and setting out on her own. Oh- and there is also a strange narrator. Which makes absolutely no sense.
Cocked – Skip It
There will be a recurring theme in this write-up of strong casts yielding disappointing results. And it begins with Cocked. This pilot is pretty darn awful considering the strength of the actors involved. It’s an unfunny dramedy, starring Sam Trammell (True Blood), a completely over-the-top Jason Lee, Laura Faser (sporting perhaps the worst American accent I’ve heard- which pains me, because I really enjoy Fraser as an actress), and Brian Dennehy (who deserves so much more than this). The plot has Trammell playing the solid and responsible older son who has shunned his family and their gun business to be a paper pushing businessman who never catches a break. He has his own family, but often bows down to his wife (Fraser) and her wishes. Naturally, the family gun business begins to fall apart because of a family feud and the younger brother (Lee) screws up royally, causing the patriarch (Dennehy) to get Trammell’s character back in the fold. Story-wise, it’s a very paint-by-numbers plot with absolutely nothing we haven’t seen before.
Even worse than being unoriginal, the pilot is tiresome to watch. It drags and there’s little doubt as to what will happen in the end. Lee isn’t funny as the oversexed, drug addicted screw-up brother. Trammell tries valiantly to elevate his material (he’s much better here than he ever was on True Blood), but there’s nothing he can do to save the show. And Dennehy sleepwalks through the generic character. I can only hope that the pilot goes no further, so each of the actors can escape and find projects more worthy of their talents.
Point of Honor– Skip It
Point of Honor commits an entire host of television sins, from spotty accents among the cast (for a Southern family all living in the same house, everyone seems to have their own special accent), uneven performances (Annabelle Stephenson is wonderfully restrained while the rest of the cast acts broadly and without much thought to the time period or their character), poor dialogue, and a poorly executed premise. The pilot introduces us to a large Southern family living on the cusp of the Civil War. As the war begins, the family’s eldest son frees the family slaves (why he has the right to do so goes unexplained, a plot hole seeing as his father is still alive and managing the estate’s affairs- or at least appearing to do so), but still decides to fight for the Confederacy since he’s a Virginia boy. Did this sort of thing happen historically? Sure. But it’s a strangely muddied decision that doesn’t really work, as one gets the feeling that he would much rather be fighting for the North. Plus, he frees the family’s slaves and then fails to adequately draw up any paperwork indicating he has done so, which immediately places them in peril. Again, muddied motives and confusing actions.
I wouldn’t mind watching a series following Stephenson’s character as she navigates life at home during the Civil War, I just don’t want to watch the rest of the cast of characters along with her. The writing is melodramatic and just plain bad in several instances. For example, the pilot opens with a voice over explaining how families were often forced to fight against each other and detailing the horrible strife brought on by the war. It’s annoying and unnecessary. Show us the horrors of war and how it affects people on the home front. Don’t spend precious minutes with a montage of battle explaining it to us (especially since none of the scenes shown in the montage actually occur within the pilot- one assumes they will happen a number of episodes down the line). From start to finish, Point of Honor is not worth your time.
Mad Dogs – Skip It
I feel almost like I should put a caveat next to my recommendation on this one. Because I’m sure there is an audience out there for Mad Dogs. I just hope they would try to watch something better than this Hangover-esque tale. Again, Mad Dogs has a strong cast: Michael Imperioli, Billy Zane, Steve Zahn, and Romany Malco. But they’re stuck in a mid-life crisis boys weekend story that has been done before- and done better. I wanted to like this one, I really did. But I found myself so incredibly bored that even a third act shocking twist (which brings the story from a dark comedy into a drama in the blink of an eye) couldn’t do much to shake me out of my disappointment (in fact, it made me even more disappointed, as the twist meant my favorite character would be leaving the show).
None of the characters are particularly likeable, mostly because they are all behaving like spoiled brats. Zane’s character is the most interesting by far, but it’s not enough to spark the series. However, the most troubling aspect of the pilot is the plot itself. Without spoiling things, I am at a loss to understand how the show can sustain itself over the course of several seasons with the current plot. It would work much better as film. The show is an adaptation of a British series with the same name, so I assume there is a way to sustain the storyline, but right now? I’m really not seeing it. And it isn’t anything particularly special anyway.
Salem Rogers: Model of the Year 1998 – Maybe
I really wanted to love Salem Rogers, as it has a truly amazing cast, but there are just too many issues for me to give this pilot my official stamp of approval. That being said, there are certainly some strong elements that can be built upon to turn this from an okay comedy into a strong comedy. The pilot tells the story of two women: washed up addict model Salem Rogers (Leslie Bibb, who really dives into the role with gusto) and her former assistant turned children’s book writer Agatha Todd (Rachel Dratch, who is one of the most undervalued comedic actresses out there). Salem gets of out rehab (after an astounding 10 years) and crashes back into Agatha’s life, which is both awful and great for Agatha who is looking to expand into the adult self-help book arena and needs a celebrity attached to her to do so.
The basic storyline is fine, if a bit uninspired. The performances are strong- Dratch, Bibb, and Jane Kaczmarek (who portrays Agatha’s agent) have funny moments throughout and work well together. But there are some elements that need a bit of retooling. Salem is an awful human being- self-absorbed and without a purpose (aside from getting her career back), and while she has one moment of apparent kindness in the pilot, we need a reason to root for her. I would argue that Agatha is the true series lead, despite the title, but Salem has the bulk of the screen time and all of Agatha’s motivation is linked to Salem. As it stands, there really isn’t a reason to want Salem to succeed other than it would help Agatha. That needs to change. She doesn’t need to be likeable, but we need some reason to have hope for her. There was also a strange structural set-up within the pilot that just doesn’t make any sense. At the end of the episode, there’s an apparent six month time jump (which calls back to a moment at the start of the pilot, bookending the episode with the time jump). It isn’t clear if this is meant to be a season long framing device (as in, in six months, here’s where Agatha and Salem will be) or if this is jumping off point for the rest of the season. I suspect it’s the former, as that makes the most structural sense, but it’s still an odd and jarring choice to make so early in the series. I have hope that Salem Rogers can turn things around.
The Man in the High Castle – See it
I saved this pilot for last because it really is the best of the bunch. Is it the next Transparent? Probably not, it still has a ways to go before it’s ready to even launch to series, but it has an incredible amount of potential. The series is an adaption of a Philip K. Dick novel by the same name (which I immediately began reading upon finishing the pilot), and hews fairly close to the story in a general sense, keeping the spirit of the tale if not the same exact plot. Visually, the pilot is stunning. The blend of futuristic elements alongside historical imagery and dress is really something to see. It almost has a graphic novel sort of quality to the background. The script is well-written, and the characters are interesting if a bit under-drawn. Most importantly, the story is well-paced and interesting.
As with the novel, there is an air of tension among the story, with characters routinely turning out to be something other than what they seemed at first glance. Despite a complex story and a number of moving parts, I never felt lost. In fact, I wanted to spend more time in this world- a world wherein Japan and Germany were victorious in World War II, and have split the United States between themselves. My one bone to pick with the show is that the cast’s performances are a bit wooden, but I’m not too worried, seeing as it’s only the pilot and there are still a number of ways for the characters to grow and change in the coming episodes. There’s a rich wealth of story here, both from Dick’s novel and simply available from the conceit of the story itself. The pilot focuses a great deal on, what I assume will be, the show’s two leads, while only allowing us brief looks at some of the higher-ups within the political structure. I hope that, should the show be ordered to series, future episodes spend more time delving into the political tensions hinted at throughout the pilot, allowing us to meet more governmental officials and understand the inner workings of the tenuous truce between Japan and Germany.
The Man in the High Castle is a really interesting hour of television with so much potential. I have incredibly high hopes for the show, and will be waiting eagerly to see where the story will take us.