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TV Review: Amazon’s Pilot Season Cometh

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I thought a bit about the title of this article, pausing at “TV Review.” Unless I beam Amazon.com through to my television (which through the magic of my Blu-ray player I can), it’s not technically “TV.” But until someone comes up with a better name for original programming not borne of either Cable or the networks, it will have to do for now.

After loving Gary Trudeau’s (he of Doonsebury fame) Amazon.com series Alpha House  (John Goodman has seldom been better), I was anxious to jump into the Amazon.com’s new pilot season. What’s unique about Amazon’s pilots is that we, that is, the viewing public, are the arbiters of what will fly and what will not on Amazon’s new-ish scripted series platform.

Amazon is offering for our free viewing (and voting) pleasure five series: three comedies and two dramas. (There are also five kids’ shows, but I’ll leave those to some other time.) Among the showrunners hoping to wow us with their brave new not-for-primetime ventures are notably Chris Carter (The X-Files) with drama, The After, and Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under) with the comedy Transparent. One of the dramas (Bosch) is based on the novels of Michael Connelly.

Of the five pilots, there were two that really got me: one comedy and one drama, which I’ll get to in a moment. The big disappointment for me was Carter’s pilot. It’s never a good sign when, while watching a movie or television episode, to question the logic of the piece. I was constantly being taken out of the action by asking myself, “Well, why didn’t they just do X.” and “Wouldn’t it have made more sense if they did Y?”

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The After is about a group of people thrown together in a hotel garage during some sort of big, perhaps apocalyptic, event. Shots are ringing out everywhere, helicopters are colliding, people are running about in chaos. There is no power; there are no phones, and no running water. Cars seem to run alright, so it’s unlikely some sort of electromagnetic pulse at work. The premise has some interest (Full disclosure: I’m a disaster movie whore, so big bad disasters usually intrigue me.)

But here’s the problem. Our group of mismatched, intrepid survivors: an escaped con, a young female cop, a French actress, a foul mouthed drunk Irishman, a clown (literally), a rich Bel-Air matron, etc. are indeed thrown together. It’s a tried and true TV trope that dates back to Gilligan’s Island (if not before). But it’s not as if these folks have no one else to whom they can cling. They’ve known each other only a few hours and already they’re defending each other as if it’s the only way to make it another day. But they’re not alone. There are thousands of people out there running from whatever it is that’s attacking Planet Earth…I mean…Hollywood.

In times of disaster, people band together, but its not as if they are trapped somewhere (hell, they make it all the way to the old lady’s Bel-Air mansion, for heaven’s sake!) I’ll stop here, but suffice to say, I just did not believe it. Full stop. And that’s disappointing coming from Chris Carter.

Of the three comedies, two were predictable situation comedies. One, which I could not manage to finish, The Rebels, is just awful. Centering on a terrible fictional L.A. NFL team (called the Rebels), it starts out promisingly with cameos by the (real) NFL Sunday television team, but quickly devolves into a mess.reb

The team’s owner dies, and the troubled football team is, of course, inherited by his ex-cheerleader wife, who has decided not to sell the franchise, but try to run it herself, declaring at one point that she did not like the “costumes” they players wear, vowing to improve them. Yeah. Exactly.

Soloway’s Transparent, which stars the always-interesting and often-strange Jeffrey Tambor (brilliant on the Larry Sanders Show, back in the day), is a family comedy centering on a dysfunctional, and somewhat estranged family. Tambor plays an older gent trying to find a way to “come out” to his narcissistic adult children. It’s better than The Rebels, and I can see a series like this playing on HBO or Showtime. It’s not great, but it has some promise. Besides, there is a dinner scene, complete with barbecue takeout in styrofoam boxes, that I would swear was ripped right out of my own life! I think it will do well in the Amazon pilot competition.

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The best comedy of the three, in my humble opinion, is the refreshing Mozart in the Jungle. I admit, I love classical music, and there have been far too few television series (comedy or drama) that put us in the pockets of classical musicians. The premise is the changes in a New York symphony orchestra when its retiring (I’m guessing the retirement is not completely voluntary) maestro (played by a terrific Malcolm McDowell) is replaced by a young, brilliant Italian conductor (Gael Garcia Bernal, Motorcycle Diaries), who has as much of the showman in his as he does impresario. Oh. And the amazing violinist Joshua Bell makes a splendid cameo in the opening scenes, worth the price of admission itself (if there was one, which there is not).

020314CuozzoThe show’s characters, from the saucy chairman of the symphony board (Bernadette Peters) to the young oboist who hopes for a chance to make it big, as well as other assorted Manhattan performance arts folk give the series some depth. Some of the characterizations are a bit stereotypical, and their actions predictable, but there is enough charm and music to make me hope it comes back for more!

Last, there is the drama pilot for Bosch. I’ve never read the Harry Bosch novels by Michael Connelly, but I think I’m going to have to start! The plot revolves around homicide detective Bosch (Titus Welliver), who even in the midst of his own wrongful death lawsuit, is driven to work, like the shark that must keep swimming to stay alive. And it is not until the end of the pilot that you understand why. This is the type of drama series I love: a great plot and an even greater mystery in deciphering the main character.

boschThe pilot begins to weave the story of a murder–an abused child, whose skeleton was discovered in the L.A. hills by happenstance. As the episode goes on, it becomes clear that the case resonates deeply with Bosch. Why? The pilot ends just as the civil trial against Bosch gets underway. Of all the pilots up for consideration, I really hope this one gets a spot; I really want to find out what happens next.

You can view all five adult pilots as well as the children’s television pilots free of charge on Amazon’s pilot page.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
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