Amazon's Pilot Season, 2015


We've once again hit pilot season for Amazon. The Website has earned legitimacy, seeing it's original show "Transparent" win Best Comedy at the Golden Globes on Sunday. Now, the site is trying to build a network brand. And, as always, the pilots are available at www.amazon.com, where you can watch them all and give your vote as to which you'd like to see go to series. This time, Amazon is offering four dramas, two comedies, and one documentary series.


Documentary Series:
The New Yorker Presents
About: This series aims to bring the pages of magazine "The New Yorker" to life. In a lot of ways, news or documentary series is new ground for Amazon that brings them more in line with a premium cable channel, like HBO. And this is entering that territory in a new way. The half-hour pilot features cartoons, a short film, an interview, and a documentary piece based on a "New Yorker" story shot by Jonathan Demme. I didn't like all the segments here, and "The New Yorker" isn't really my kind of magazine. That being said, there was some great information in the piece, and this is the kind of artistic and cultural stretch that Amazon should be making to establish a brand. I applaud this kind of thinking, and I think there's a lot that could be done with this.
Grade: C+

Comedy Series:
Down Dog
About: I have not been a big fan of Amazon comedies during their past few pilot presentations, but I know I'm in the minority. There is a point at which some of these shows — the half hour comedies in particular — seem to want to push the lines of content to show they can play with the big boys, like HBO and Showtime. This pilot, set in the world of Yoga and following a main character, Logan Wood (Josh Casaubon), who seems to want to coast through life, did just that. There is a lot of sex and nudity in the first episode, and some of it felt like it was there for effect rather than plot. That being said, of the two comedies offered by Amazon, I liked this one better. I didn't like it, per se, but I could see some possibilities for improved and interesting narrative here. But there is a lot of work to be done.
Grade: C-

Salem Rogers: Model of the Year 1998
About: This is a strange half hour about a model, Salem Rogers (Leslie Bibb), who gets kicked out of rehab after a 10-year stint. She tries to return to the world of modeling, and tries to rope in and abuse her former assistant (Rachel Dratch), who's now a successful self-help author. Salem also goes right back to her old ways, drinking, partying, and making bad decisions. Hilarity ensues… or at least that's the point. But hilarity didn't ensue for me, and I was put off by a lot of what happened in the pilot. Plus, of all the shows debuted by Amazon, this had the most caustic characters and the least value for me. This felt like a total bust.
Grade: D

Drama Series:
Cocked
About: This was another of the Amazon series that seemed to go out of its way to include sex, nudity, and other adult content for shock value. I don't think it really added to the plot. And that's a shame, because it comes from Samuel Baum ("Lie to Me") and stars Sam Trammell and Jason Lee as brothers trying to save their family's gun manufacturing company. There were moments of the pilot I enjoyed, and I liked the cast. I also think this could be an interesting premise. But I didn't like the way the characters were developed here, and I really didn't enjoy the way the pilot story played out. Plus the "Twist" at the end could be seen coming a million miles away.
Grade: C

Mad Dogs
About: This was a difficult pilot to watch. There is some promise here, and there is a great cast — including Ben Chaplin, Romany Malco, Steve Zahn, and Michael Imperioli. There is some rough content, but overall the pilot is well produced, and the story is somewhat engrossing. Billy Zane also does a nice job as a fifth member of the group in the pilot. But a couple things bothered me. First, the characters aren't that likable. Their relationships were already fraying around the edges by the end of the pilot, and I wonder how you keep that going. Secondly, this feels like the kind of material better served as a feature film. I have trouble seeing how it works as a series long-term. So I liked it a little, but I don't know how excited I'd be to see it as a series.
Grade: C+

The Man in the High Castle
About: This is adapted from a Phillip K. Dick novel by Frank Spotnitz ("The X-Files") and produced by Ridley Scott. It's set in an alternate 1962 which supposes the Allies lost World War II and America has been divided up by the Nazis and the Japanese. The Nazis control a bulk of the country, including the East Coast, while the Japanese control the West Coast, with a strip by the Rocky Mountains as a neutral territory. There is a lot going on in the world, including friction between Japan and Germany, and a resistance movement seeking to restore control of America to the Allies. This was a well crafted series, and something that feels radically different. It had a nice cast and a nice pilot. I love the way they've imagined the alternate world, and they set the pieces in place for a fascinating journey. There also appears to be more than is seen going on here. This is a pilot I could get excited about.
Grade: B

Point of Honor
About: This series, from Randall Wallace ("Braveheart") and Carlton Cuse ("Lost") is set at the outset of the Civil War. It focuses on one family in Virginia that has entanglements on both sides of the fight. The central family is drawn into the war, but for different reasons. Son John, an officer candidate at West Point, comes home to Virginia to fight for the Confederacy but frees all his family's slaves before he does. His brother-in-law and fellow classmate stays loyal to the Union Army, but struggles with the idea he'd have to fight against his wife's family. There was a lot of beautiful issues in the pilot, and it's a great story with great potential. In three years of reviewing Amazon pilots, this is the one I've been most excited about. I love the Civil War period, and I think this has incredible potential. I can only hope it gets picked up.
Grade: A-

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