Which 2015 Amazon Pilot Should You Watch?

Well it’s Amazon Pilot Season again! The past few years have brought a really nice concept from Amazon, putting out their pilots for any and everyone to watch and give direct feedback on. Many pilots are never picked up by a network, yet might’ve been well received by a large audience, Amazon gives each of these pilots the opportunity to get a more “viral” support and is just one more way the company innovates.

The following are my brief (as possible) reviews of each of the pilot, including the positive and negative thoughts about each show as well as an overall thought. Check them out and be sure to let me know what you think as well!

The New Yorker Presents

Amazon’s Synopsis: America’s most award-winning magazine comes to life in this new docu-series. Produced by Oscar & Emmy winner Alex Gibney, the pilot features a doc from Oscar winner Jonathan Demme based on Rachel Aviv’s article “A Very Valuable Reputation,” writer Ariel Levy interviewing artist Marina Abramovic, a sketch from Simon Rich and Alan Cumming, poetry read by Andrew Garfield, and cartoons by Emily Flake.

The Good: The New Yorker Presents feels like a show that’s been running for years, a mainstay along the lines of 60 Minutes or a visual version of This American Life. That is to say that viewers are used to shows in different segments with interstitials in between. These interstitial, using comics that would appear in the print version of The New Yorker is an obvious but inspired touch. For a pilot, the segments chosen were interesting with one “skit” or fiction segment and two short documentary or nonfiction segments. I think that format would be similar to what viewers would expect, with obvious room for flexibility from time to time, and I think it suits their format well.

The individual segments were all fascinating in their own way and the kind of thing I believe The New Yorker aims to do, which is namely spark thought and conversation.

Also, bonus points for hearing Marina Abramović say “selfie”.

The Bad: You can’t review this the same way you would a traditional sitcom, drama or anything in-between because there is no recurring cast, no mythology to be build upon as you would a fictional show but also not a host for audiences to connect with and identify the show with as well. This means it’s hard to forecast what other episodes would feature and if they would fare as well as the first one did.

Reviewing the individual segments, it could be said that all 3, while well made, they do not seem to call the viewer to action, or to have one main definite thing to say. In the Marina Abramović segment, are we meant to marvel at HER artistry or HER views? In the Tyrone Hanes profile are we supposed to join him in his fight against atrazine, even though no information to do so was given?

My Verdict: This is a well-done show that brings the promise of utilizing many different talents and featuring some really interesting people and stories. However, the other “bad” thing for this show, even if not their fault, is that for a mainstream segment of people, they simply will not “get” the kinds of segments this show will produce in the same way many people do not read The New Yorker. That does not make it a good or bad show but it is just something the show will have to deal with in competing to become an Amazon regular.

Point of Honor

Amazon’s Synopsis: At the start of the Civil War, a prominent Virginia family makes the controversial decision to defend the South while freeing all of their slaves, pitting the family against one another and testing their strength, courage and love. The pilot was co-written by Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Randall Wallace (Braveheart) and directed by Wallace.

The Good: This is an ambitious show. It’s difficult to say it any other way than that. The opening sequence and credits position this as a show setting out to be an epic viewing experience. I applaud that goal and the risk Point of Honor is taking.

What makes it ambitious is the scope of the show as well as its attempt to deal with slavery and the civil war in a way audiences are not accustomed to. By focusing on a Southern Family, where the eldest son frees the family’s slaves, Point of Honor is attempting to exist in a very complex and painful part of America’s history. This is a bold choice, and perhaps one the show’s producers feel is important. Again, the ambition should be applauded.

The Bad: At just under 57 minutes, this pilot felt long, like really long. Why? I don’t necessarily feel pacing was the reason but rather some of the issues this show has otherwise just kept wearing on me. While the show is ambitious, I don’t feel its production value lived up in some areas. Aesthetically, some of the costuming felt too clean, to “costumey” for lack of a better word. There were times my mind kept thinking, “I am watching a show about the civil war” as opposed to “I’m watching the civil war”. Yes, without a time machine no production will capture a historical drama perfectly but there were times Point of Honor felt sterile.

Also, isn’t the Point of Honor estate in Virginia? I’m no dialect expert but it just didn’t sound like Virginia. Nathan Parsons is clearly putting in a lot of effort in the lead role of John Parsons, but being from Australia, it comes across like he is trying to sound like a southerner rather than he actually sound like one. This is fairly emblematic of the show. It feels like it tries too hard. AMC’s Mad Men is also a historical show, but it comes across as more natural, even if it has just as many exaggerations and historical inaccuracies. Sometimes, there is just a touch a show’s team has to give it that special something.

My Verdict: Historical drama fans will certainly want to give it a shot, but ultimately Point of Honor will probably not rise again.

Down Dog

Amazon’s Synopsis: A handsome, carefree yoga instructor has breezed through life, women, and jobs, but when he breaks up with his girlfriend — who’s also his partner at their successful yoga studio — he’s forced to face reality for the first time. A satirical look at LA’s yoga culture that stars Josh Casaubon (I Just Want My Pants Back), Paget Brewster (Criminal Minds), and Kris Kristofferson (Lone Star).

The Good: How many other shows can you think of centered around a yoga studio? The setting of the show, and Josh Casaubon as Logan will definitely appear to viewers. As a premise, the show is basically Entourage meets The Rebels (A pilot from Amazon last year about a woman taking over a professional football team and way over her head). I think the cast works well together and there seem to be a lot of different angles the show could take and explore but viewers will mostly want to see how Logan learns to be a business owner and grow up.

The Bad: I was a little surprised for this show to feature narration that reminded me of Anchorman (some people have likened it to Arrested Development as well), as it just came off a bit cheesy and I think it was the fastest way for the show’s producers to give backstory and context in a pilot. That being said, while I understand why they may have used it, I didn’t like it and wouldn’t want to hear it every episode.

Also, what happened to Kris Kristofferson? I think a father/son dynamic in a show like this can be entertaining and even deep but I was taken aback by either the acting choices or the actual health Kristofferson seemed to be in. Maybe that isn’t fair but it is just what came to mind.

My Verdict: Entertaining but light, Down Dog will be fun for viewers but I’m not sure how much mileage you could get from it in the long run.

Mad Dogs

Amazon’s Synopsis: When a group of underachieving 40-something friends gather in Belize to celebrate the early retirement of an old friend, a series of wild, comedic events unfold, exposing dark secrets and a web of lies, deception and murder. Starring Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos), Billy Zane (Twin Peaks), Steve Zahn (Dallas Buyers Club) and Romany Malco (Weeds). Executive produced by Shawn Ryan (The Shield).

The Good: Let me start off by saying That Thing You Do! is one of my favorite films of all time, so it (and by proxy) and Steve Zahn hold a special place in my heart. It was great to see him and such an interesting ensemble. Michael Imperioli, Billy Zane, Romany Malco and Ben Chaplin gelled well together and are well cast. As a remake of the British show of the same name (also starring Chaplin) it will be interesting to see if this gains traction as the mysterious and tense plot has literally been done before in the original adaptation and viewers who have watched or check out the original will have the plot spoiled.

However, that does not take away from how good this pilot was. The pilot gives us a great indication of who the different characters are, what some of their motivations are (even if we aren’t privy to their biggest secrets), and introduced into a large plot that has a lot of room to grow.

The Bad: I have not seen the original, but I kept feeling like this felt more like a film (think The Hangover meets last year’s In The Blood) than a television show spanning 4 seasons (which the British version did).

The other negative would be that in some ways it has an unfair advantage on the Amazon pilots. The rest are originals whereas this show’s premise and basic execution has already been proven on Sky1. While Point of Honor struggled (see above) because it tried to hard, at least it was just that, trying. Mad Dogs has to execute of course, it can’t sleep walk to success, but it has an easier road in many ways.

My Verdict: Mad Dogs is really well done and feels polished and I believe will really hook many viewers. Not only do these four characters have to get their way out of a precarious situation, they also have battle some of their demons within and amongst themselves. Audiences love a good ensemble show and Mad Dogs might just be the next best one.

Salem Rogers: Model of the Year 1998

Amazon’s Synopsis After a decade in rehab, an abrasive former supermodel tries to recreate her success in a new world she barely recognizes, relying on the help of her browbeaten former assistant. Unfortunately her world is no longer a place where people jump at her command or care about who she was. A half-hour comedy starring Leslie Bibb (About a Boy) and Rachel Dratch (SNL). Directed by Mark Waters (Mean Girls).

The Good: Let’s be honest, Leslie Bibb and Rachel Dratch are funny. Separately and together they have great timing and chemistry. The strength of this show really rests on their performances and them as a duo. In this way, Salem Rogers succeeds.

The Bad: As good as the performances are, shows also exist as part of a larger picture. The main drawback for Salem Rogers is that it feels really formulaic, for lack of a better term. I can imagine the pitch meeting, “East Bound and Down meets America’s Next Top Model, with a Tina Fey style spin!”

By itself, it’s entertaining with some solid humor, but when you look at it in the grand scheme of television, it seems “old hat”.

My Verdict: Bibb and Dratch were able to show off their talent, but ultimately Salem Rogers seems like more of what people have already had in the past.

Cocked

Amazon’s Synopsis: Family is like a loaded gun. A corporate lapdog is forced to return home to Colorado to save his family’s struggling gun business, much to the horror of his liberal family, and his playboy older brother who never left. Hilarity, epic fights and meltdowns ensue in this dramedy starring Sam Trammell (True Blood), Jason Lee (My Name is Earl) and Tony-winner Brian Dennehy (Death of a Salesman).

The Good: My Name is Earl meets Arrested Development. The general theme for me of the show was this. Conveniently, Jason Lee was the aforementioned “Earl” and brings that to the role. While it is a bit old hat for him at this point he is still enjoyable to watch. Shows that bring viewer into the world of an industry or setting they have not really been before (like the gun industry) make for good material and potential. The show has room to explore not the merits of guns but the people who own and use them.

It was also smart for the pilot to end on a mysterious note, leaving viewers wondering where the real threat was coming from and giving someone a reason to want to see more. Even though I’m pretty sure who would be behind the mystery, it was a good addition to the episode and a welcome surprise.

The Bad: While the show may have the potential to explore gun ownership it sure seemed to be resting in caricature in the pilot. Jason Lee is wearing modern cowboy wear with a gun around his waist, and the rival gun company is threatening violence against a competitor. I understand that these elements are the basic foundations of this show’s dark comedy format and perhaps if the show continued for seasons we might see more depth to the characters but for a pilot it felt like I could see where most segments were going based on clichés and/or common tropes.

My Verdict: A fun pilot with potential, but needs to work past over-used concepts and caricatures.

The Man In The High Castle

Amazon’s Synopsis: Based on Philip K. Dick’s award-winning novel, and executive produced by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), The Man in the High Castle explores what it would be like if the Allied Powers had lost WWII, and Japan and Germany ruled the United States. Starring Rufus Sewell (John Adams), Luke Kleintank (Pretty Little Liars) and Alexa Davalos (Mob City).

The Good: Earlier I described Point of Honor as ambitious, but The Man In The High Castle makes that show look lethargic. Based on the novel by Phillip K. Dick of the same name this show is swinging for the fences and connecting. From the masterful opening credits, all the way through the pilot, viewers are brought into a well-realized world. This show has been the talk of the pilots and now I can see why. I have not read the original 1962 novel and I understand there are some differences between it and the pilot, as is usually the case with adaptations. That being said, I don’t think myself or viewers need to have read the novel to appreciate the brilliance of the pilot. Alternate History is not a new concept, especially with the idea of The Axis Powers winning the war. It does take some leaps of logic to believe this could have been the case and just what would have happened but for the sake of the viewer its best to accept it and say, “This is what the show is saying, I’ll go where it takes me.” From that point on it appears High Castle is going to take audiences to some interesting, if not metaphysical, territory.

The acting was solid, the art direction really established a world that seems lived in, if not somewhat horrific, and the potential is tremendous.

The Bad: I said it is best for viewers to try and accept the narrative being presented without asking too many “how” or “why” questions in regards to the premise, however as rich as the opening credits were/are I think it would have served the pilot well to do some explaining of where the Point of Divergence happened from our own reality and what turned the tide to keep the allies from victory.

From what I understand of the original novel, it ends in a sort of open-ended way, leaving many things for the reader to assume. I am burnt out somewhat on shows that, from the outset, seem as though a viewer will have to make it through the entire series to either find out the answer to the one big mystery, or the satisfying conclusion to the pilot’s initial set of problematic circumstances. Justified is one of my favorite shows that has developed season-long arc’s that do play into a larger series arc but provide definite beginning, middle and end’s for me and other viewers to enjoy. I think Lost has soured some viewers and now they want to be able to think they will see some things play out within a season or two and not 6 or 7. I am all for the “slow burn” but TMITHC will have to give viewers something specific to look forward to before they get a bit too weary. After all, no one wants to watch Nazis keep the upper hand for too long.

My Verdict: From start to finish, this was the best, well-crafted episode of the pilots and has so much potential; it wouldn’t be a surprise for this to be something really special for Amazon.

Stray Observations

Of the 7 pilots, 6 were fiction and of those six half featured the pilot beginning en media res. I’m not sure what that means but by the 3rd time I saw it, my eyes began to role.

I didn’t mention it throughout the specifics of each show, but make no mistake; these shows are for mature audiences. Amazon has an entire other group of family-friendly pilots, but it seems clear with these 7 they are following suit with Netflix and HBO with programming that screams “This isn’t you normal network TV!” Some of the content in The New Yorker Presents could be said to be mature too but the Marina Abramović was at least in the service of “art” while the other shows mature content felt a bit gratuitous. It is interesting that the shows I felt were the most ambitious, Point of Honor and The Man In The High Castle really did not have this kind of stuff and seemed to want to make an impression in other ways.

The “Winner”

As I mentioned earlier, I think that if there is one show most likely to continue on with Amazon it will be The Man In The High Castle. I don’t think the other pilots aren’t worthy of further exploration necessarily but TMITHC is just that much better.

What do you think? Have you watched any of the pilots? What are your favorites?

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