Is Amazon learning? The latest batch of Amazon Originals pilots is a cut above the last group—both on the adult and the children’s side—with several shows that would make for enjoyable additions to the TV landscape. Here, we take a look at the pilots intended for adults.
The After: The After marks Chris Carter’s first foray into science-fiction television since The X-Files ended, and what it lacks in story it makes up for in style. The pilot is instantly gripping, slowly unfolding horror for its characters with a precision that has Carter’s fingerprints all over it. To offer more detail would be to ruin the story—and that’s the modus operandi of The After, too, which offers confusion instead of answers. What’s frustrating about this pilot is how little it reveals about the nature of whatever world-changing apocalypse has befallen the characters—it could be a terrorist attack, aliens, peak oil, or nuclear winter. The result is frustrating yet fantastic, because Carter deftly makes a show ostensibly about a disaster into a show about this random group of people trying to survive. Though the cast is populated with relative unknowns, they bring a surprising amount of talent to the screen—particularly Louise Monot, who plays deliberately counter-cast lead. There are already hints that whatever this disaster is, it has traces of the supernatural. But most importantly, it’s impeccably shot and carefully structured. There are mysteries here, but The After knows exactly what it’s doing. Carter hasn’t loss his ability to thrill.
Bosch: The Bosch pilot hits screens with a solid pedigree: It’s based on a popular series of crime novels by Michael Connelly, it stars the excellent Titus Welliver, and it’s being brought to life by Eric Overmyer, a veteran of The Wire, Homicide: Life On The Street, and Treme. The episode walks a tricky line, wavering between the types of truly gritty drama that Overmyer is known for and a more mainstream procedural tone. When the grizzled veteran cop is out doing his job, he feels real (or at least TV-real). When he’s bantering with stock characters like the sexy female prosecutor or the Internal Affairs guy who won’t get off his ass—Will he say “rat squad”? Of course he will—the show isn’t nearly as strong. As an introduction to a character, however, the episode works well, playing out parallel stories that show both sides of his personality. On the one hand, Bosch is in civil court defending himself in the shooting death of a man he suspected of being a serial rapist and killer; on the other, he’s out in the field, investigating the skeletal remains of a boy found in the L.A. hills. The stuff that doesn’t really work—including the fact that Welliver and the creators may not have a 100 percent lock on who this character is yet—could easily be repaired over the course of a few episodes. Once the world is established, a solid, HBO-styled cop show could emerge.
Mozart In The Jungle: One of the chief advantages of Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix’s entry into the scripted programming game is that they can pick up programs that nobody else on TV would greenlight. In the wild and inventive new dramedy Mozart In The Jungle, Amazon has the sort of thing it’s impossible to imagine anywhere else. Set in the ultra-competitive world of professional classical music, the series Mozart most resembles is Canadian masterpiece Slings And Arrows. Written by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Alex Timbers (the young theatrical genius who directed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter And The Starcatchers) and directed by Paul Weitz, Mozart plunges immediately into the life of Hailey (unknown Lola Kirke), a young oboist who wants nothing more than to join the symphony under the aegis of new conductor Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal). The pilot is possessed of jokes both weird—a musical version of a famous play scored by Styx—and character-based, which bodes well for the future. Even if not everything lands, the sense of smart, passionate people making a life out of making art pervades every scene, just like in Slings.
The Rebels: Professional sports and scripted TV don’t mix well, as the swift cancellation of ESPN’s Playmakers demonstrated in 2003. But Amazon has no lucrative broadcast-packages to blow up, so The Rebels depicts the professional football life in all its imagined glory: colorful profanity, exotic pets on exotic drugs, and a Greek chorus composed of the NFL On Fox team. The pilot’s halo of Axe body spray is cut only by the presence of Natalie Zea as the inheritor of pro football’s most pathetic franchise, the Los Angeles Rebels. The narrative of a rebuilding year maps neatly to the structure of a TV season, but The Rebels feels more like the opening act of a big-screen underdog story than the series premiere of a single-camera sitcom. (In fact, the setup is more or less a reverse Major League for football.) There’s a lot of talent on hand here—Zea, Nickelodeon grad Josh Peck, Billy Dee Williams, Marc Evan Jackson, director Jay Chandrasekhar—but there’s nothing more inventive (or funnier) than the idle speculation being spilled during any given sports-talk call-in show.
Transparent: Jill Soloway’s work as co-showrunner of the second season of United States Of Tara has been underappreciated in TV fan circles. She took a good but severely inconsistent show and turned it into one of the best portrayals of the devastating price of mental illness in TV history. Now Soloway, who has spent her time since Tara on HBO’s How To Make It In America and writing and directing the film Afternoon Delight, has returned to TV with her first series-creator credit for Transparent—about which it’s difficult to say much without giving away the whole thing. Suffice it to say, Transparent is yet another indie-film-inspired series about the perils of rich white people (this time in Los Angeles), but it’s also not—at least not really. As Soloway’s confident, assured pilot continues and revelations pile up, Transparent begins to feel more and more like a Jonathan Franzen novel for television. Helping matters along is an excellent cast, including Gaby Hoffmann, Amy Landecker, and Jay Duplass as grown siblings called together by their father so he can share some news. And as that father, Jeffrey Tambor is magnetic, giving a reserved yet riveting performance that speaks volumes with just the smallest of hand gestures. Of all of Amazon’s pilots, this one is the keeper.
Created by: Chris Carter
Starring: Louise Monot, Aldis Hodge, Jaina Lee Ortiz, Arielle Kebbel, Jamie Kennedy
Format: Hour-long sci-fi drama
Developed by: Eric Overmyer, from novels by Michael Connelly
Starring: Titus Welliver, Jamie Hector, Amy Aquino, and Lance Reddick
Format: Hour-long crime drama
Mozart In The Jungle
Developed by: Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Alex Timbers, from the book of the same name by Blair Tindall
Starring: Lola Kirke, Peter Vack, Safron Burrows, Gael García Bernal
Format: Half-hour single-camera dramedy
Created by: Jeremy Garelick and Jon Weinbach
Starring: Natalie Zea, Josh Peck, Hayes MacArthur, Affion Crockett, Billy Dee Williams
Format: Half-hour single-camera comedy
Created by: Jill Soloway
Starring: Jeffrey Tambor, Gaby Hoffmann, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, Judith Light
Format: Half-hour single-camera dramedy