THR Critics Debate: The Good, Bad and Worse of Amazon's Fall 2015 Pilot Season

Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg debate the merits — or lack thereof — of  'One Mississippi,' 'Edge,' 'Z,' 'Patriot' and more.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Max Martini of Amazon's 'Edge'
Last week, Amazon premiered its latest pilot season, debuting two comedies (One Mississippi and Highston), two dramas (Edge and Good Girls Revolt), one half-hour bio-drama (Z) and one hour-long spy dramedy (Patriot).
 
As with previous Amazon pilot seasons, the episodes have been available for free, with viewers being able to vote and comment on each. Those results theoretically play at least some role in the pick-up process, according to Amazon.
 
It took a few extra days, but The Hollywood Reporter's TV critics Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg were finally able to make it through all six pilots and, with some disagreements, they weigh in on the lackluster crop.
 
Tim Goodman: Having watched all six of the new Amazon Studios pilots, Dan, I thought I'd share with you the six words that immediately came to mind — one for each show: woeful, disappointing, underwhelming (the comedies) and awful, stupid, intriguing (the dramas).
 
I would say that's not a very good list of words.
 
Maybe we can talk about all six of these pilots individually, thus possibly containing (or maybe focusing) our anger and disappointment, assuming you share those traits. You may not. That's why we do these things. Let's start with the comedies, such as they are. What did you think of Z: The Beginning Of Everything, the "bio-series" about Zelda Fitzgerald starring Christina Ricci? This series is listed as a comedy which is a real disservice since the only funny thing in the pilot is the plethora of bad Southern accents. I found it a real drag — overly long at under 30 minutes, it's a pilot that goes nowhere. At least nowhere I wanted to go. 
 
 
Daniel J. Fienberg: Yeah, Z gets stuck in that "Emmy voters say half-hour shows are comedies, so I guess we'll group this half-hour drama with the comedies" rut. And, yes, the Southern accents are Vintage High School Production of To Kill a Mockingbird (speaking as an Atticus Finch circa 1993, I know of what I speak). And you say the pilot went nowhere, but it got to ... well, Zelda meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald. So if you're doing a show about Zelda Fitzgerald and trying to prove that she was a woman ahead of her time and that she's interesting as a character in her own right, why wouldn't you have your pilot culminate in her meeting a future-famous man after a comically overlong ballet sequence in which she enchants all the men in the room? Silly accent aside, I thought Christina Ricci seemed like she was having some fun. Poor David Strathairn, though. How can this be the best we offer David Strathairn?
 
It might be best to just swiftly transition over to One Mississippi, in which Tig Notaro continues to expertly mine her own personal tragedy — illness, cancer, the passing of her mother — for awkward laughs and sincerely heartfelt moments. Anybody who has seen the recent documentary Tig or read any of the exhaustive coverage of Tig's recent travails will not be shocked by the plot points, but the pilot has a solid mixture of sadness, whimsy and dead-pan humor. You can see Louis C.K.'s hand in executive producing; it's got a lot in common with Louie, stylistically. Spoiler alert: As far as I'm concerned, Mississippi is the only one of the six Amazon pilots that probably needs to be picked up. None of your three words describing the comedies suggest you feel the same way?
 
 
Goodman: Well, I used "disappointing" for this one because I don't think One Mississippi is the canvas that works best for Notaro's work. Basically I was expecting more. A lot more. I see the Louie connections but only vaguely, and it often seemed too obviously crafted in that vein. My issue was that this pilot is extremely slow, even if you're going to deeply mine all this darkness. The pilot focuses closely on her mother's death and paints in all of Notaro's personal woes in a way that introduces but doesn't spotlight them. (Future episodes will, I suppose). She has a very specific kind of comedy and delivery that works exceptionally well in stand-up and on radio but a whole lot less effectively in the construct of a show. I'm positive this pilot will be picked up, but I hope that it gets much better.
 
I guess that leaves us Highston, which if you prod me repeatedly I might say has some potential, but "underwhelming" was my word choice here. It's definitely quirky but more than a little precious, and the mental illness component of the show seem less developed than the celebrity cameos (the premise is that the main character talks to celebrities who give him life advice). There were moments in this pilot that I really liked, but those happened as I winced through so many other moments, wishing the whole thing felt less contrived and wasn't dripping with sweat for trying so hard. I'd have to see three or four more episodes to really submit a verdict on this one.  
 

Fienberg: I thought One Mississippi was slow in that way that Tig's stories are slow and her delivery is slow, and manages to lull you into thinking you know where she's going and then she gets the punchline by zigging abruptly. Mississppi seemed to capture that rhythm, though perhaps more in emotional ways than humorous ways, actually.
 
To me, Highston felt like a student film. Not a bad student film. In fact, if a 23-year-old out of USC had this on their reel, I'd say, "There's definitely some creativity here and I can't wait to see what they do when they have a fully realized idea that isn't this." Unfortunately, writer Bob Nelson and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are supposed to be better than "student film" level. As it stands, this feels like just another play on the familiar, TV-friendly "Person Hears Voices — Are They Crazy or Gifted?" trope and having done Wonderfalls and Joan of Arcadia and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and a few other things in this vein, I need more than Napoleon Dynamite-inspired quirk to keep me going. I can always find reasons to chuckle at Mary Lynn Rajskub, Chris Parnell and Curtis Armstrong, but Flea felt like a really lackluster Celebrity Hallucinated Guest of the Week, and I just can't imagine finding anything to invest in here on a weekly basis. Is he crazy? Are his delusions helpful and benign? I don't much care.
 
If we weren't inspired by the comedies, things are about to get even worse with dramas, I fear. Good Girls Revolt is cut from the Pan Am/Playboy Club cloth of "Weren't things kitschy and awful back then?" period empowerment narratives. It doesn't have to bend over backwards to make its point like those two shows did — and with Anna Camp, Genevieve Angelson, Grace Gummer, Chris Diamantopolous and Jim Belushi, it's got a great cast to work with. I liked some of the period production values, but there isn't a single line of dialogue that doesn't scream out its themes. Did it ring true for you?
 
 
Goodman: Not at all. From the opening where they showed Altamont Pass as being in Oakland to pretty much everything else — wigs, clothes, depictions of the work place, writing, acting, directing, I was one notch from loathing it. So I chose "stupid" as a descriptor instead. You totally and completely nailed it with the Pan Am/Playboy Club thing. It's that same cheap, overly simplistic, too on-the-nose attempt to capture the essence of the times that does in Good Girls Revolt (which, like One Mississippi on the comedy side, is a very bad title). There was so much to hate in this pilot — all the wasted talent of the actors is a good place to start. But in the end I just found it exceedingly stupid — like a history lesson told by people who only half-remembered it and got most of the things wrong enough to make you want to shout. And trust me, watching that show made me want to shout. But not nearly as loudly and violently as I did while watching Edge, Amazon's attempt at a Western which just might be the worst pilot I've seen in quite some time (which you know is really saying something). I mean, Edge is flat out awful — embarrassing on so many levels (for starters, writing, acting and directing). How does something this heinous get made? It must truly gall people who are trying to be involved in the TV industry in this wonderfully creative and challenging era. Edge is like someone defecated on a rose as a rebuttal to all this great TV. 
 
 
Fienberg: OK, I'm gonna defend Edge. I'm not going to defend it aggressively or extensively, but here's what I'll say: It's intended to be pulp and it's nothing if not aggressively pulpy. You've got Shane Black, a very talented guy, trying to make the goofiest, most overblown C-movie possible, a grindhouse version of vintage Western serial. And between the exaggerated severed limbs and digits, Max Martini's unrelenting growl and the most aggressive onslaught of puns I've ever heard in an adult drama, I thought it achieved some of its aspirations. I assume the cast was consistently directed to go for hammy and silly instead of authentic and grounded, and so Martini, William Sadler and Ryan Kwanten are probably on-point for the genre aspirations. Yvonne Strahovski as a high-priced call girl with a secret is probably pretty perfect. You can tell that more money was put into shoot-outs and blowing things up, dynamite-style, than into populating group scenes and into a couple of specific effects shots that are downright hilarious, but I think that corny stylization was intentional. It's not Deadwood and they should never do an episode as long as the pilot EVER again. But I think it's like an R-rated Brisco County Jr. Is there no place in your heart for such a thing?
 

Goodman: None. Zero. Hate, hate, hate. Gah.
 
I'll shift the conversation here to Patriot, the only drama pilot I liked — with reservations, of course (which I'm guessing you didn't?). Patriot was the only Amazon pilot I'm actively rooting for — though I do pin some hopes that Tig Notaro's show, which will definitely get made, will get better. And maybe there's something deep down in Highston to mine. I liked the combination of absurdity and quirk in Patriot, as it mixed with espionage/intelligence/spywork themes. It's extremely hard to pull off those tonal shifts, but for the most part I thought Patriot did. And even when it didn't, I found myself coming around to it after a while. For example, when the guy was hit by the truck but later we learn that he's not dead — that's a big, big swing to take for a joke, so I applaud the effort (in much the same way you applaud whatever you saw in Edge). I thought Michael Dorman was pretty great and I bought him as an operative. I also loved the running joke of him turning to very, very specific folk music to help out his PTSD. In fact, I liked everybody in this show, and not just because Terry O'Quinn nails almost every role he gets. After not liking so many of the the others, this was the last one I watched. Patriot certainly isn't perfect; there are still things that need to be ironed out. But the big difference is that I actually wanted the next episode and would have watched it immediately. I think Patriot has something going here and I hope Amazon lets it find itself. Among various reasons, I definitely want to hear the soundtrack of those folk songs. 
 
 
Fienberg: I agree completely that Patriot is trying for some very strange and often ambitious tonal stuff, but I disagree with you that writer-director Stephen Conrad succeeds in nailing those tones, which is honestly a problem I've felt Conrad (The Weather Man, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) has had in his feature work as well. He wants to do things that are both absurd and also grounded and that's just a ridiculously tough balancing act — made harder here by the attempts to add global espionage stakes, which I thought failed entirely. I think the pilot looks great and there are certain oddball beats that played well for me, but I also disagree on Michael Dorman, who I found wooden and also excessively, predictably Australian and incapable of settling on an accent here. Maybe he'll eventually relax into the role with more time? I always like Terry O'Quinn and Michael Chernus and Kurtwood Smith, so those are some workable pillars to build on. I think I could get into the idea of Patriot if it were in development at a network with more experience creatively steering and evolving projects, but the Amazon process has seemed to be laissez-faire and sometimes shows need to be whipped into shape. To me, this needs some whipping. 
 
This all left me wanting more One Mississippi, but not really caring about any of the other five pilots. None of them is as bad as Hand of God or The After, so I guess that's something? But even the few others I can make allowances for, I'm not excited about.
 
Any closing advice to Amazon after sitting through these six pilot entries?
 
 
Goodman: Yes, which is the same advice I have for everybody trying and failing to stand out, much less thrive, in 2015 — make better shows. That's the thing. Making quality content is at once simple and insanely hard. I think Amazon, like Netflix, is still working to find some sense of consistency. Television is a difficult business and these outliers have been finding that out of late. Neither one is FX or HBO at this point. I'm partly surprised that Amazon still has such big, big misses, but then again that's what makes this sort of exercise kind of fun.
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