Amazon.com Original Programming Pilots

Amazon.com Original Programming Pilots

A couple of weeks ago, Amazon.com put a bunch of pilots for shows it might pick up to series on its website. You can view them here. While there’s plenty to talk about in terms of how this delivery strategy differs from the strategies Netflix and Hulu are employing, this isn’t the time to do that. This, instead, is the time to talk about how good the shows are—to say nothing of Amazon’s curious decision to focus on comedies and kids’ shows, two types of programs that rarely make for great pilots.

Five of our writers recently watched all 14 of Amazon’s shows. Here are their thoughts.

Comedy pilots:

Alpha House: Good comedy pilots are exceedingly rare, which makes Amazon’s choice to throw most of its money and energy into a bunch of them slightly curious, outside of the fact that a good comedy series has tons of replay value for a streaming service like Amazon Instant. Of the eight comedy pilots, Alpha House has by far the most interesting premise (a bunch of Congressmen live together in the same house), one of the best pedigrees (coming from no less than Garry Trudeau), and perhaps the strongest cast overall (headlined by John Goodman). Yet the pilot itself feels surprisingly airless. There are laughs in it here and there, and the acting is good, but the bulk of the humor in the episode is made up of easy slams on Republicans, rather than anything like humor stemming from the characters or smart political satire.

Making fun of Republicans is part of Trudeau’s stock in trade, and he’s usually pretty good at it, but simply showing a bunch of Republicans living together is not, in and of itself, a laugh riot. (Trudeau’s also great at savaging Democrats for their ineffectuality, and this show could use more of that, not in terms of being “unbiased,” but in terms of giving the four men something to struggle against and/or make fun of.) Goodman is a lot of fun as avuncular Gil John Biggs, who suddenly finds himself in a political fight for his life, and Clark Johnson is also good. There are a couple of fun cameos, including one I never would have expected, and by the end, there’s a definite sense there’s a show here. Trudeau and company just haven’t found it in the first episode. B- [Todd VanDerWerff]

Betas: The biggest thing Betas has going for it is a sense of place. The Silicon Valley portrayed in Evan Endicott and Josh Stoddard’s pilot might be a cartoonish portrayal of the kingdom of Zuckerberg, but it feels marvelously lived-in. There’s no hand-holding done in the first 25 minutes of Betas, as the workplace sitcom opens up on the eve of a big pitch for the core quartet of Trey (Joe Dinicol), Nash (Karan Soni), Hobbes (Jon Daly), and Mitchell (Charlie Saxton). Or “eve,” rather: Another advantage of setting a workplace comedy in “The Valley” is the time-warped work-life balance in the West Coast techtopia, which allows its workplace friendships to spill out into the rest of the world with minimal effort. If Trey and Nash want to hit up a party held by a potential angel investor while Hobbes and Mitchell treat a shared workspace like a combination of The IT Crowd basement and Cheers, it’s perfectly within reason.

That split, however, could prove problematic in the event of future episodes. The pilot hits the relationships between Trey and Nash and Hobbes and Mitchell hard, almost as if each pair serves as the leads in separate versions of Betas. For a pilot marked by so many other smart choices—top-notch casting, a focus on underdogs (hey, that title has a double meaning!), Daly’s beard—that strange segmentation stands out. If the characters really want to sell an app that erases the non-physical barriers between people, the show would do well to remove the similar obstacles separating its characters. B+ [Erik Adams]

Browsers: A musical comedy set at a website that is in no way meant to resemble The Huffington Post, Browsers has lots of likeability, but perhaps not much in the way of sustainability. Bebe Neuwirth, who in no way is playing Arianna Huffington, is the editor of a website welcoming four new interns to Winnowing Week, at the end of which one of the four fresh-faced, web-savvy twentysomethings will be fired. It’s a solid, if standard, set-up and one that puts four characters with clearly defined goals in close proximity to one another.

When characters are merely speaking, Browsers is competent but hardly compelling. The four interns are caricatures in the pilot, describable in one word as a point-and-click Breakfast Club. That’s hardly a problem for a pilot, where the majority of the heavy lifting is done in service of establishing the show’s world. There’s a hint that Browsers will deepen its characters in subsequent episodes through its treatment of Justin, a former intern and now assistant to Neuwirth’s Julianna Mancuso-Bruni.

The real draw here is the music, which is almost uniformly catchy and often quite witty. Written by Brendan Milburn and Fountain Of Wayne’s bassist Adam Schlesinger, the songs range from pure Broadway (with those numbers attributed to Milburn) to sitar-laced techno. Budgetary limitations give neither the musical production nor onscreen staging much in the way of epic showmanship, but you’ll almost certainly be humming one or two tunes after viewing this pilot.

Whether the show can sustain an average of five original songs per half-hour installment is the big question here. Either the show will have to employ more songwriters or find ways to make its non-musical moments stronger. There’s potential here for low-budget charm. But there’s also the potential that this pilot represents the acme of what this show can hope to achieve. B+ [Ryan McGee]

Dark Minions: Imagine an adult swim style show about two slackers working as drones for the Galactic Conglomerate. Don’t worry about the mythology. A hodge-podge of Star Wars and, let’s say, Flash Gordon concepts will cover it. One hero is straitlaced; the other’s a goofy, Jonah Hill-back-when-he-was-fat type. Their boss wants to rule the galaxy; they’re not huge fans of that. Then the hero falls in love with a rebel, whose co-rebel happens to be a super buff, just to make room for lots of jokes about the hero having to prove his manliness. Mix everything up in some good stop-motion animation, throw in plenty of weed jokes, and shake for 20 minutes.

The Dark Minions’ pilot (written by and starring Big Bang Theory alums Kevin Sussman and John Ross Bowie) is watchable enough, even with the mixture of storyboard and fully-realized animation (the pilot, like many of these pilots, hasn’t been completed yet). The voice cast, with ringers like Clancy Brown, Phil Lamarr, and Richard Kind, knows its business, and while the script doesn’t have a huge amount of laughs, the performances are professional enough to hold everything together.

Yet it’s hard to get all that excited about a show where almost every concept comes across as well past its expiration date. From the nerdy guy with the pothead best friend to the controlling villain with the nebbishy second in command, this is all disappointingly familiar, straight down to the hotty rebel heroine who just happens to be the only regular female cast member. (The only female voice in the entire pilot, even.) A distinct perspective, a more diverse cast, and a tighter script could’ve made this stand out, but as is, it’s the sort of mildly pleasant white noise that already fills the late night airwaves. You’re better off watching a Futurama rerun. B- [Zack Handlen]

Onion News Empire: We can’t review this one for what we hope are obvious reasons, but you should feel free to talk about how much you liked it (or didn’t like it) in comments below. Enrich our corporate coffers!

Supanatural: Supanatural also brings an adult swim sensibility to the Amazon pilot process. But while it has all the familiar trappings of that animation subgenre—retro style, post-modern sensibilities—at nearly twice the length of a typical adult swim episode, it’s also a case where more is actually less.

 The show features a pair of friends, Lucretia and Hezbah, who battle ghosts, demons, and other assorted enemies when not busy stuck at their day jobs at the local mall. They’re whip-smart, but more prone to street slang than Shakespearean oratory. (Typical joke: “‘Demon’ just another word for ‘scrub’!”) The two dream of being able to support themselves financially through their world-saving but have so little money in their savings accounts that they must take mundane jobs in order to make ends meet. As a concept, this is a solid basis around which to construct a show. After all, how many of us dream of following our passions instead of taking jobs just to be able to pay rent?

But at nearly 23 minutes long, the pilot overstays its welcome by half. It’s not as if it needs all that time in order to tell a complete story. The narrative centers around a crystal skull and the impending apocalypse, but really, the skull is just a MacGuffin so we can see the ways in which Lurcretia and Hezbah interact with those around them. There’s something cool about seeing a pair of women as world-savers, and the casual way in which they expertly navigate through a booby-trap filled temple is mighty amusing. But there are also only so many times you can hear jokes like, “This crystal skull is a hater!” before the effect wears off.

In shorter bursts, the bizarre energy of this show might make for eminently streamable stoner comedy. But in stretching things out so much, the show risks neutering its strengths. There’s a strong core here, but Supanatural needs to pare things down in order to truly shine. B- [RM]

Those Who Can’t: There’s certainly room on television (or the internet, or what have you) for a comedy about teaching, but Those Who Can’t shows how difficult a line a show like this has to walk. Created by Denver-based comedy group The Grawlix (Andrew Orvedahl, Adam Cayton-Holland, and Benjamin Roy), the show has a misanthropic, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia vibe, following three high school teachers as they try to sabotage an annoying jock by putting drugs in his locker. The biggest gag, of course, is their checked-out attitude and their outrageous behavior, but that’s a gag that could get old fast.

There’s a shoestring vibe to the pilot, but it definitely has some charm, and each of the leads brings something different to fairly stereotypical roles. Cayton-Holland is the lady-trolling bad boy, but he’s also a pretentious Spanish teacher who insists on teaching his (largely Latino) student body the proper Castilian pronunciation. Roy is a rage-filled history teacher who subjects his class to actual working conditions in turn of the century factories. Orvedahl is a geeky gym coach who gets bullied by his kids, but he has great nervous energy in his scenes with the other leads.

The problem is that too often, Those Who Can’t goes to a very lazy well for jokes. Roy’s character wants to buy drugs to plant in the student’s locker, so he dresses up like an embarrassing wannabe gangsta and rolls up on some black guys playing dice (actually, they’re playing Yahtzee—I laughed at that). Cayton-Holland hits on the librarian by checking out important-sounding books. There’s not enough to distinguish this show, even with a few smart jokes and funny supporting performances by comedians Rory Scovel and Kyle Kinane, and the shock factor of the school setting dies away quickly. C+ [David Sims]

Zombieland: Perhaps the most notable of Amazon’s eight comedy pilots—in that it was picked up in turnaround after a real, live network passed on it—Zombieland is also the weakest, a disappointing attempt to recapture some of what made the movie so much fun. The show follows the four main characters from the film, but the actors cast here have little of the spark and liveliness that the actors in the film had. It doesn’t help that for most of the pilot’s running time, it’s doing weak spins on some of the better gags from the film, inviting unflattering comparison.

There’s probably room in the world for a zombie-themed comedy, what with the endless glut of zombie programming in all media beating its way toward viewers’ doors, and there are worse ways to approach that question than turning a popular zombie comedy film into a TV series. But the Zombieland pilot is not only the most prominent of Amazon’s comedy pilots; it’s also the longest, and that length ends up eating the show whole. There are long, bland sections here where the boring cast can’t manage to save the material. Then again, it might not be the fault of the cast, because that material is just so lifeless and unnecessary. At 22 or 25 minutes, this might have been more fun. At nearly 28, some of the jokes simply don’t land entirely because of editing.

There are fun moments here and there—particularly when the show contrives a way to have its lead get bit by zombies yet survive the encounter—but for the most part, this is a listless attempt at distilling a fun movie down to a half-hour or less. And if you’re going to suggest a romantic comedy set against the zombie apocalypse and you don’t have Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone, well… best tread carefully. C- [TV]

[pagebreak]

Children’s pilots:

Annebots: It’s interesting to look at how Amazon’s approaching the question of useful children’s programming. Many of its pilots have female leads, and those that do often have said female leads working in fields like math or science, where educators have long fretted about young girls shying away from succeeding, because of long-standing prejudices about “smart” girls. Those prejudices, thankfully, seem to have finally started to fade, but a program like Annebots probably won’t do too well at encouraging young girls to become scientists for a fairly surprising reason: The little girl scientist at its center is a big jerk.

The “Annebots” of the title are a series of robots constructed by young Anne, a girl who lives in a junkyard and builds ridiculously complex machines, then uses them to conduct simple scientific experiments most curious kids could pull off if they got into their parents’ household cleaning supplies closet. This is all well and good until she meets a neighborhood boy named Nick and promptly tells him that if she’s to become her human helper, he’ll have to defeat her robots at at least one task. Considering that Nick can chuck a bowling ball about five feet and her robot arm can throw a car into orbit, this seems highly unlikely.

All of this might be okay if Anne didn’t take such glee in her ‘bots defeating Nick at every turn. It just makes her seem like an antisocial zealot, who’d rather write off all human contact in favor of building machines who best her own species in every way. And while that might be a cool setup for a sci-fi romantic comedy, it leaves something to be desired in a kids’ show. Encouraging young girls to pursue an interest in science is all well and good, but does Anne have to be so mean? C+ [TV]

Creative Galaxy: Most of the Amazon children’s pilots take the form of the call-and-response kids show. You know the one. Think of, say, Blue’s Clues, where Steve stands and excitedly stares at the audience with bugged-out eyes while kids are encouraged to shout, “A CLUE!” Of the kids’ pilots I screened, Creative Galaxy is by far the one that encourages the most audience participation. An almost relentlessly cute series in which a young alien named Arty flies around in an unfortunately phallic rocket ship with his best pal Epiphany (a little purple thing who speaks in beebles and borbles), Creative Galaxy encourages children to get out their art supplies and start getting creative. It’s fun, so far as these things go, but it also promises stuff most kids will have trouble with. It’s one thing to encourage them to turn little pom poms into fun bugs with button eyes and pipe cleaner antennae; it’s still another to have Arty redecorate a library with the things.

The most promising thing about Creative Galaxy is its look, which is often a lot of fun, particularly when Arty and Epiphany are scooting around between the “Museum Planet” and the “Painting Planet” as they attempt to save the library. (The “plot” involves Arty trying to help out his mom, who designed a library for people to sit and read in. She gets sad when people check out the books to read at home instead, the heathens.) On the other hand, this also speaks to one of the odder things about Amazon’s children’s pilots: Many of them are deeply incomplete, with storyboards standing in for animation. This is fine when a pilot’s being judged by network executives, but when it’s being judged by actual kids, kids who are rather turned off by incomplete aesthetics at times, well, it doesn’t suggest success. Too bad, too, because Creative Galaxy is a lot of fun, particularly in its songs, and it encourages kids to expand their brain horizons. B [TV]

Positively Ozitively: When he created Oz, L. Frank Baum set out to make a fairy tale-like place free of the horrors that typically plagued the work of the Brothers Grimm. Given the decades’ worth of psychological scarring induced by witch-killing houses, meltable women, and hideous hopping monkeys with wings, he didn’t entirely succeed, but he might be pleased by the efforts of Dara Monahan, the creator of Positively Ozitively. In this kiddie-friendly version of Oz, all the witches are good, and no one asks who made the Tin Girl.

The pilot introduces Dot, Dorothy’s daughter, an enterprising little girl determined to find her mother the perfect birthday present. When construction paper fails to satisfy, Dot decides to take a balloon to Oz, with her mother’s permission. (Child endangerment laws apparently don’t have much bite in Kansas.) Once she arrives in the magical land, she runs into the kid-versions of Dorothy’s old chums and helps each one solve their problems through encouragement and positive thinking. In the end, Dot realizes her mom’s dingy watering can was the show’s equivalent of Chekov’s gun, and like Dorothy before her, she returns home without any tangible gains, but happier for the experience.

Very little of Positively Ozitively’s CGI animation is visible in the pilot, and what there is lacks personality; while they lack the smoothness of the properly animated scenes, the storyboard visuals have considerably more warmth. (There’s also no effort to visually distinguish between home and Oz, which is disappointing.) But overall, the show is genial, aggressively adorable, and thoroughly devoid of terrors. It doesn’t have much to offer any grown-ups watching, but it’s perfectly acceptable for the 3-year-old who likes talking scarecrows, hugs, and friendship. B [ZH]

Sara Solves It: The only of Amazon’s kid-friendly pilots I watched that seemed anything close to complete, Sara Solves It wins points for having a thoroughly engaging aesthetic. Cardboard and crayon backdrops decorate such enjoyable conceits as an apartment building’s “watermelon floor,” with Flash-animated kids darting around in front of them. It gives the whole thing the feel of a little kid playing with Colorforms, where the characters dance in front of mostly static backgrounds that the kid designed herself.

Sara Solves It also wins points for its encouragingly low-key approach to diversity. Sara and her brother Sam are both African-American, but the show doesn’t make a big deal of this or even mention it. (Their nemesis, Victor Vector, is the whitest white kid who ever lived.) The two have the run of their apartment building, to the degree where one of their best friends is the talking elevator, and they turn it into a haven for Sara’s favorite thing: solving math story problems.

The center of the episode contrives a way to have Sara help Sam—in song, no less—figure out where Victor has taken Sam’s stuffed rabbit, Rocket, after the older boy steals the toy while all three are riding the elevator. The problems Sara solves are all very simple addition questions, but when she breaks down how addition works, it’s all aimed directly at the show’s intended audience, and it’s more or less successful at what it’s hoping to do. Sara Solves It would already be at least somewhat watchable because of how unexpectedly fun it is to look at, how charming its world is, and how agreeable its take on diversity is, but the math puts it over the top. Sara Solves It genuinely seems like something kids might learn from, and that’s not nothing. B+ [TV]

Teeny Tiny Dogs: “Come on in and play with teeny tiny dogs!” cries the theme song to this children’s show, and unless you have a heart of stone, that sounds like a mighty inviting offer. Produced by the Jim Henson Company, Teeny Tiny Dogs takes place at a doggy day care, where Dinky and his pals Polly and Butterfly play amicably with dozens of other furry creatures. “Drama” in the world of this show involves a new dog that is afraid to make friends, only to have the unerring support of everyone around him from moment one. Eventually, said dog comes around, embraces friendship, and all live to see another blissful day in doggy day care.

Dogs is a puppet-based adventure, but the pilot itself is actually a storyboarded version of what would actually ensue should the pilot get selected. It’s a semi-curious decision: Although 4-year-olds can’t participate directly in deciding what will get a season pick-up, it’s also possible that making the mental leap from two-dimensional static drawings to a full-blown puppet production might be too much for those not yet in kindergarten. Any parent using a child’s reaction to help control the influx of new, streamable material might be judging the show on less-than-ideal circumstances.

This isn’t one of those “ironically enjoyable for adults as well as children” programs, with its earnest, educational focus aimed directly at toddlers and pre-schoolers. As such, this falls under the category of “harmless but ultimately unnecessary.” Far be it for us to criticize a pilot trying to help shy children make friends, but plenty of shows teaching life lessons already exist. Creator Howard Baker, of Rugrats fame, knows about creating compelling, original content for children that transcends the genre. Teeny Tiny Dogs seems perfectly happy to be as generic as possible, which might be fine for a parent or babysitter looking to use the program as visual distraction. But in terms of making it stand out in an already flooded market of streamable children’s content, that’s simply not enough. Viewers might find this show by accident, but few will be actively searching for it. C+ [RM]

Tumbleaf: I don’t know whether it says more about me or Amazon’s script-selection process that my favorite pilot out of those Amazon selected was one about an occasionally animated fox child wandering around the world’s most peaceful screensaver, but Tumbleaf is a quiet near-marvel, even in a form where many of its scenes are storyboarded. So much of children’s TV is so loud and so fast-paced that it’s very strange to find something this contemplative popping up in the Amazon pilot selection process, of all places. I expect it to fail with younger voters, but for those of us who just want a nice place to veg out every once in a while, it might prove very tempting indeed.

Fig’s the aforementioned fox, and the series takes place in a rural wonderland where he bounces between wide open pastures, quiet forests, and softly rolling seas. (For most of the pilot, the background soundtrack carries the sound of undulating waves, which creates a sweetly captivating vibe.) The idea behind the show is that Fig will head out into a beautifully animated landscape—and it is gorgeous in the few scenes that are fully animated, capturing the feel of something like the stop-motion work of Aardman Studios (though I’d suspect at least some of it is computer generated)—then have a variety of adventures that encourage kids to explore their own surroundings, to become problem solvers, and figure out how to manipulate their worlds to their advantage.

There’s stuff here that becomes annoying—like when Fig discovers a boat that goes up and down and becomes far too enamored of it—and the ending is very weird (in that Fig becomes a fox kite), but there’s so much that’s just fun to take in in this pilot that it becomes weirdly compelling, even when nothing’s going on. How many places on the TV schedule offer up a place where it’s soothing to just sit back and let the show’s world wash over you? At its best, Tumbleaf could be that for kids’ TV. A- [TV]