Critic's Notebook: Amazon Spring 2017 Pilot Reviews

The standouts among Amazon's new crop of pilots are Amy Sherman-Palladino's 'Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' (a hoot) and the John Hawkes-starring 'The Legend of Master Legend.'
Sarah Shatz
'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.'
It's time for another of those oddly perfunctory Amazon pilot seasons where we get all excited about a couple of Amazon's offerings, wait a few weeks, hear about a few pickups and then wait a year or more to see the actual shows — during which time forgotten shows from earlier pilot seasons come and go, other shows arrive that didn't need to go through the crowd-sourced pilot process at all, and then one or two of the things ordered from previous pilot seasons are very quietly put into redevelopment or canceled. 
 
In short: Someday I still hope to see a series version of Whit Stillman's The Cosmopolitans, but I'm glad I never had to watch any more of The After.
 
Amazon's last pilot season introduced three half-hour shows — with Amazon, we've learned not to call them "comedies," even though Amazon has yet to have a half-hour show that wasn't a comedy for awards purposes — and all three were ordered to series so we're holding out for our full seasons of I Love Dick, The Tick and Jean-Claude Van Johnson
 
 
That was a successful pilot season!
 
The spring 2017 pilot season finds Amazon introducing three new half-hour shows, in The Legend of Master Legend, Budding Prospects and the punctuationally confusing The New V.I.P.'s, plus hour-longs Oasis and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In fitting Amazon fashion, one of the two hour-longs is very funny, while two of the half-hours strain any conventional definition of "comedy."
 
And guess what? There isn't a clear dud among the new pilots. Oh, I have significant preferences between them and there's definitely one I don't need to see again, but there's no unwatchable disaster. Even the one disappointment, for me, is proficiently produced. There's one I'll be angry if Amazon doesn't order, two I'd really like to see more of and one that I'm only tempered on because I don't understand its form and format.
 
That's not bad.
 
Without further ado, here are capsule reviews of the Amazon spring 2017 pilots, starting with the half-hours.
 
The Legend of Master Legend
 
Written by Transparent veterans Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster and based on real events, The Legend of Master Legend is a welcome inversion of the Arrow/Batman/Iron Fist billionaire vigilante formula, starring John Hawkes as a blue-collar DIY superhero living out of a storage locker far from The Strip in Las Vegas. With a homemade suit and weapons, he feeds the homeless and keeps drunk bachelorette parties from abusing cab drivers, while battling his own demons. Any time wiry character actor extraordinaire Hawkes can get a lead role, I'm pleased, and this is a great vehicle for him. Master Legend is noble, courageous, funny, and more than a little sad and lonely, despite his nurturing relationship with his ex (Dawnn Lewis) and his high school-aged daughter (Anjelika Washington). Shea Whigham has a couple of strong scenes as Master Legend's estranged brother, who may be a budding DIY supervillain. Director James Ponsoldt (Spectacular Now) is always good at tone blending, and this pilot has effective Vegas underbelly grit, brief notes of fantasy, a little action and a couple of scenes of real sweetness. This felt more grounded and earnest to me than something like Kick-Ass or Super, where an ironic tone often pervaded. As a result, and because Hawkes is just a great actor, I felt a real sympathy toward the mostly internal conflicts Master Legend was dealing with and real curiosity about the choices he was making in living his odd life. Bring on more!
 
Budding Prospects
 
Terry Zwigoff and Melissa Axelrod are adapting T.C. Boyle's book about the rise of marijuana cultivation in Mendocino County in 1983, but this pilot felt like the first act of a 100-minute movie to me. Why is it hoping to be a TV series? And why is it a half-hour? Maybe I'm just old fashioned in thinking structure and format matter, because it isn't like Budding Prospects is bad. In Adam Rose, Joel David Moore and Will Sasso, it has a good trio of lead actors and all three familiar comic foils are immediately getting to do some different things from what viewers are accustomed to from them. As the man behind the potential weed enterprise, Brett Gelman is creepy and eccentric fun, as is Natalie Morales as a character who might eventually become a love interest for somebody (except that Morales generally is busy and I don't know how this would work with her potential NBC comedy pilot). Zwigoff directs, and the pilot has a grungy, textured take on San Francisco in this pre-gentrification moment when the city's liberal instincts were running afoul of Ronald Reagan's policies — and if you think Budding Prospects isn't relevant for 2017, there's even a character who grumbles, "Those Republican slimebags are defunding the NEA." Of course, Zwigoff showing how well he can depict the Mission District in 1983 is irrelevant, since the action of subsequent episodes will presumably shift to a farm we haven't seen yet. In fact, Amazon's synopsis description of Budding Prospects as a show is almost all set after the events of the pilot. Basically, Budding Prospects does what it does well, but it isn't a template for a TV series. I'd watch more of these characters, but I'd really want some thought put in to why this story is being presented the way it is.
 
 
The New V.I.P.'s
 
Steve Dildarian's sardonic absurdism isn't going to be for everybody, but as a big fan of The Life & Times of Tim, I found it very easy to slide right into the impersonal corporate nightmare at the heart of The New V.I.P.'s, in which a couple of low-motivation slackers stage an accidental hostile takeover that's something like Office Space meets Weekend at Bernie's. Amazon's first stab at doing an adult animated show, The New V.I.P.'s is stylistically similar to The Life & Times of Tim, albeit a bit more colorful and a bit more populated, but it's not some layered artistry that's going to blow your mind in HD. It's more about the densely joke-peppered script and precise line readings from talent like Ben Schwartz, Missi Pyle, Jonathan Adams and Jason Mantzoukas. I had no objections to Matt Braunger in the role of the main cubicle-level conspirator, but I couldn't shake wondering why Dildarian wasn't playing the character. Like Budding Prospects, The New V.I.P.'s seems to get to what the series is actually going to be only at the end of the pilot, so I don't know if this is going to be heavily serialized, and I also can't tell if the amount of low-brow body humor is a function of the machinations of the pilot or not. I also don't know if Ray Liotta, very clearly not voiced by Ray Liotta, is going to be a regular character. Those details don't much matter. If somebody wants to give Steve Dildarian a TV platform, I want to watch it.
 
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
 
We're on to the hour-longs, and this is the Amazon pilot that I most hope goes to series. In fact, I'm curious about what reservations would have kept Amazon from not just giving Amy Sherman-Palladino a straight-to-series order for this 1950s-set dramedy about a wealthy Jewish housewife who finds a very strange path into the world of standup comedy. Heck, why wouldn't you give Sherman-Palladino, who wrote and directed the pilot, a straight-to-series order just to screw with Netflix? I wonder if there was a desire in some camps to get a bigger star than Rachel Brosnahan and Sherman-Palladino insisted on her leading lady, so Amazon opted to get feedback? If so, let me begin by saying that the House of Cards and Manhattan veteran is just terrific in a star turn that confirms she can be funny and eccentric and that she's a natural fit for Sherman-Palladino's dialogue, which crackles with period touches and specificity. I didn't think I had any need for another show about somebody trying to make it in comedy, but Sherman-Palladino, Brosnahan and supporting players including Tony Shalhoub, Marin Hinkle, Bailey De Young and particularly Alex Borstein convinced me in a hurry. I'm not 100 percent sold on Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce, but I'm not unsold, which is a minor triumph when you're playing a real person that iconic. Special kudos to production designer Bill Groom, a four-time Emmy winner for Boardwalk Empire, who channels a little Mad Men and a little Inside Llewyn Davis to craft this world. With the caveat that I even enjoyed listening to Sherman-Palladino's patter in The Return of Jezebel James, this pilot introduced a series that I would happily settle into binging this afternoon, if only it existed.
 
Oasis
 
Matt Charman's adaptation of Michel Faber's book, handsomely directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), is a decently executed amalgamation of at least a dozen familiar sci-fi tropes that I am, unfortunately, tired of. But maybe you suffer from less fatigue when it comes to stories of colonists at remote futuristic outposts, harboring secrets that led to their departure from ordinary society, going slowly crazy in an alien environment in which nothing is what it seems. The hallucinations of loved ones, increased paranoia and claustrophobia aren't badly handled and there's some OK introductory world-building as Richard Madden's grieving chaplain makes his way around the otherworldly outpost on Oasis. But Madden isn't a dynamic centerpiece for the story, and the second half of the pilot alternates between easy-to-predict twists and things that you couldn't predict mostly because they defy even the story's speculative logic. I wish the pilot did a better job of nailing the thing that's supposed to set this story apart, so far as I can tell, which is the choice of a man of the cloth as the focal character. Anil Kapoor, Zawe Ashton and Michael Shaw add interest to the supporting cast, but the pilot's revelation may be how entirely likable a husky, bearded Haley Joel Osment is as an in-over-his-head botanist. You've seen everything on Oasis before, done both much better and probably much worse. I'll probably hold out for better versions in the future.
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