Critic's Notebook: Amazon Comedy Pilots 'The Tick,' 'I Love Dick' and 'Jean-Claude Van Johnson'

Blue superhero disappoints, Jill Soloway's latest (starring Kathryn Hahn) feels like a sure thing and Jean-Claude Van Damme is Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Erica Parise/Amazon
Jean-Claude Van Damme of Amazon's 'Jean-Claude Van Johnson'

Amazon can't quite quit the word "comedy."

Two weeks ago at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, executives made a big deal about categorizing things as "hour" and "half-hour" shows, rather than as "dramas" or "comedies," referring to series as being "naturally" inclined toward a length, rather than restricted to a length by whether or not they're funny.

It was a good theory.

On Friday, though, Amazon is dropping three new half-hour pilots in its latest Choose Your Own Programming fabricated democracy experiment, but rather than calling it their forthcoming Half-Hour Pilot Season, they're calling it their forthcoming Comedy Pilot Season. While all three pilots absolutely fulfill the mandate of a running time of roughly 30 minutes, only one is "traditionally" funny, one is actively failing to be funny and the third is effectively on-brand for Amazon as funny-in-that-way-that-life-is-peculiar-but-not-actually-funny-in-that-way-that-sitcoms-are-funny.

Plan and parse out your laughter accordingly.

However you classify your genres, it's a showier pilot season than the recent drama slate in which the mediocre-with-potential The Last Tycoon got a series order over the mediocre-with-potential The Interestings. You've got Emmy winner Jill Soloway with her Transparent follow-up, the long awaited reboot of The Tick and a TV comeback for Friends guest star Jean-Claude Van Damme.

So how are I Love Dick, The Tick and Jean-Claude Van Johnson?

Capsule reviews to follow:

I Love Dick — Amazon loves trumpeting its democratic pilot process, but something tells me that it won't matter how you vote on I Love Dick. A half-hour from Jill Soloway (co-created with Sarah Gubbins from the book by Chris Kraus) starring Kathryn Hahn (finally getting overdue mainstream recognition thanks to Bad Moms) and Kevin Bacon (as the title character) is going to series. It helps that it's pretty good.

Despite a title that made my editor and co-workers giggle relentlessly every time I mentioned it in the office, I Love Dick isn't ha-ha funny, though it cut together as a nicely sardonic trailer. It's really more like a spinoff for the Cherry Jones subplot from Transparent transplanted to the hipster/academic/artistic mecca of Marfa, Texas. It's desiccated intellectuals in a desiccated environment trying to reconnect and rehydrate with their juicy, moist emotions.

The chuckles, such as there are, come from things like a professor declaring his grand project is "reinterpreting the Holocaust" or from another character announcing that he's "post-ideas." It's a smart and recognizable tweaking of a certain thought process, with a smart and recognizable portrait of a decaying marriage in the middle and surrounded by a grounded and textured depiction of a very peculiar small town.

We could pause and be baffled that Hahn has never been nominated for an Emmy — a Transparent guest nod should have been a no-brainer — or we can accept that I Love Dick is Soloway's attempt to guarantee her a future nod with the sort of immediately dimensionalized character Hahn has gotten to play in indie movies, but not as much on TV. Playing a man whose charisma is practically a gravitational force, Bacon is also perfect, though I think the pilot goes too heavy on making Bacon's Dick iconic and too heavy on the inevitability that any time anybody says or types something like "Bacon's Dick" chuckles will ensue.

Dick. Tee-hee. OK, let's move on.

The Tick — Man, oh man. Directing comedy is not easy. That's what I kept thinking throughout the pilot for The Tick, which Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister helms with a shocking and punchline-muting lack of nimbleness.

I very clearly understand and acknowledge the desire to foreground drama and real-world stakes within a heightened superhero story that's already going to have a ridiculous guy in a blue suit at its center, but The Tick errs too much toward slow and dark, but not actually dramatic or even vaguely thrilling, and finds none of the adroitness it needs. Pfister's direction and the pilot's editing never accentuate the jokes or humor in Ben Edlund's script, which is already weighed too heavily toward nervous conspiracy theorist Arthur (Griffin Newman) and not nearly enough toward Peter Serafinowicz's azure, high-jumping hero. A Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed the Fox series' pilot, or a Dean Parisot might have turned in a take on this script that wasn't this disinterested in being funny. After Pfister's direction on Netflix's dismally murky Flaked, I'm convinced that he's good at taking comedy scripts and steering them away from comic beats. It didn't work on Flaked either, but it felt more justifiable there.

Serafinowicz has the tough task of following Patrick Warburton's characterization from the short-lived Fox series, and while I like the British comic's casting in theory, there isn't nearly enough Tick in the pilot for me to point to what he's doing that's effective or distinctive. As it stands, it feels like the part was still tailored for what Warburton did well and not the myriad things Serafinowicz does well.

I liked Jackie Earle Haley's one scene as The Terror, but really nothing else.

This was a huge let-down.

Jean-Claude Van Johnson — I'll say this for Amazon's "What if Jean-Claude Van Damme were actually a private military agent of some sort?" pilot: I think it's the best version of itself that it could be.

Dave Callaham's script is full of clever winking and nudging about Van Damme's career, about 1980s action movies and about Hollywood. It's a bit facile on certain details about trending L.A. eateries and vaping commercial directors and whatnot, but there are real punchlines and some of them are effective.

Key and Peele and Keanu helmer Peter Atencio proves, once again, that he's a master at genre parodies that also play well as effective emulations of the genre, so the pilot includes stylish action homage and stylish action alike. It's probably too nicely shot, actually, as Atencio directs an action scene for a cheaply shot Bulgarian straight-to-video movie that would have looked great theatrically as well.

And Van Damme? Well, he does the best he can. Callaham's script steers into the actor's woodenness and Atencio steers into his age and you're left thinking that the Bloodsport star is a figure worthy of compassion, rather than pity. A couple things Van Damme says probably would have been funnier if delivered by a better actor, but then you don't get Van Damme and the history and legacy that come from his wearied good looks and still-capable physicality.

The problem? I don't really need any more than the 30-minute pilot for Jean-Claude Van Johnson.

In fact, I probably could have been satisfied with a 22-minute pilot for Jean-Claude Van Johnson.

I get the jokes, I like Van Damme's self-awareness and I enjoyed the action, but I can't imagine a circumstance in which the 13th episode of this series is still funny or in which direction from somebody other than Atencio still delivers equally on comedy and action. I just got done talking about how hard one of the best cinematographers of our time makes comedy direction look on The Tick and Atencio makes it look easy. Also, Van Damme already did something along these lines back in 2008 with JCVD and I feel like we're already at Peak JCVD as JCVD.

As a 30-minute short film, Jean-Claude Van Johnson is an amusing, muscular success, but it's a failure when it comes to making me want a series, though I'd give it one or two more episodes to confirm my concern.

Amazon's I Love Dick, The Tick and Jean-Claude Van Johnson pilots are available on Friday.

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