Critic's Notebook: Amazon Studios Is Not a Reclamation Project

Despite the Roy Price controversy and a narrative about failure, there's a golden opportunity for the next Amazon Studios head — likely a woman — to build a winner.
Jennifer Clasen
'Transparent' was Amazon's big breakthrough, but it has also had a number of other successes and strong series.

You want to know about a really great job opportunity — and one that any number of people should be coveting?

Head of Amazon Studios. Some (re)assembly required.

Yep, that was the job Roy Price just resigned from after The Hollywood Reporter wrote about a sexual harassment claim against him (and followed up with more disturbing allegations, which detailed a toxic work situation).

Price's exploits certainly damaged Amazon Studios' reputation, and their being in business with The Weinstein Co. didn't help, particularly when a $160 million series from David O. Russell and featuring Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore was dropped after Amazon had, according to the THR story from Kim Masters and Lesley Goldberg, already sunk $40 million into it.

There's a definite stench factor in play here. Even beyond stories of sexual harassment, there have long been complaints about Amazon Studios' management style, from bad judgment to favoritism to writer and producer David E. Kelly telling The Wall Street Journal that it's "a bit of a gong show" over there and "they are in way over their heads."

It would be a bit stunning — and tone deaf — if Amazon Studios didn't fairly quickly name a female executive from an endless supply of exceptional candidates to smoke out the bad vibes and get things moving in a positive direction. (The company already has a qualified candidate in former Fox International Channels executive Sharon Tal Yguado, whom it hired in January to oversee "event series development," which is basically a fancy name for "the team tasked with finding the next Game of Thrones before Jeff Bezos loses all of his patience.")

Tal Yguado is a strong contender, but there are numerous highly qualified women who could take over Amazon Studios, restore its reputation and lead it to success (and even if Tal Yguado did take over for Price, adding more female executives guiding series development couldn't hurt).

And here's the thing — Amazon Studios is in a great position and doing better than it has been given credit for.

Almost every story about the streaming service, including those appearing in THR, paint a picture of programming failure, particularly in light of the fact that Amazon Studios is a) not Netflix, b) wasn't the first streamer to win a best drama Emmy, because Hulu just did that for The Handmaid's Tale, and C) the streaming service just dumped two expensive flops in Z: The Beginning of Everything and The Last Tycoon, right about the same time that Bezos said Amazon really needed to focus on getting the next Game of Thrones.

Look, all the cool kids in this town are pivoting to "find the next Game of Thrones." But saying you want a show like that is only several solar systems removed from actually having one.

That said, being the head of Amazon Studios is a great job. The future looks very bright. What the streaming service has been unable to do, mainly, is get out of its own way. In the summer of 2016 I wrote about complaints creators had with being able to find their shows in the Amazon Prime Video world — it was as if every show other than Transparent was no different than some widget from the main site that could be shipped to you in two days. But that's been fixed for the most part — the user experience looks slightly improved, and Amazon Studios is no longer shy about its originals.

The question it faces now is what it wants to be. Netflix is in the volume business. HBO and FX are in the prestige business. Hulu is a combination of shows you missed last night and ambitious originals. Amazon? Well, in fairness to Price and the team that's currently in place, the headlines that were generated about Bezos wanting big hits like Thrones that could play internationally came from an interview Price himself gave to Variety at the beginning of September. Which means that on the programming side, Price and company were essentially following different orders up until then. Or he was making his own decisions and Amazon was living with them until two boring and not very good F. Scott Fitzgerald dramas drove Bezos insane.

Before that, Amazon was, not unlike Netflix, all over the map, creatively. The difference is that Amazon couldn't keep up in the volume game (Netflix not only outspent it but had a head start), and some of the pellets in Netflix's shotgun blast approach hit the target.

But look at what Amazon did: After starting with Betas and Alpha House (the latter was good enough to get noticed) in 2013, the streamer took a big creative jump the next year. In 2014, Transparent was a game-changer and awards magnet. Amazon took a bold chance with that and truly nurtured it. Mozart in the Jungle was (and remains) a fun, binge-worthy series that won a Golden Globe. I would watch that over lots of series elsewhere in TV Land.

In 2015, Bosch launched and has been a fan favorite and solid offering ever since (you need shows like that in the mix — doing strong work inside familiar genres). The Man in the High Castle was also considered a successful push into ambitious creative territory, the kind of risk HBO would take. On the comedy side, you have the tragically underappreciated (and yep, everybody has a few of those) Red Oaks. I loved that show. It starts its third and final season Friday and, like a lot of excellent content in this Peak TV era, will be there for you to discover some day.

The drama Hand of God, in 2015, was the first real creative misstep.

Things got a bit more complicated, and certainly weirder, in 2016 as Amazon's decision-making at the top started being called into question (technically, that started earlier, but let's stick to the timeline here).

Mad Dogs didn't work, and there was creator tension. Goliath worked, but there was also creator tension (which bled into 2017). The Brit series The Collection was essentially ignored (and is now popping up on PBS' Masterpiece.). Good Girls Revolt didn't work and — noticing a theme here — there was more creator tension. (In the wake of Price's ouster there have been reports of his disdain for the female-centric Good Girls Revolt, and that could certainly be true, but it's an entirely different topic from the fact the series just wasn't very compelling.)

On the comedy side in 2016, Amazon launched Tig Notaro's One Mississippi (which recently began its second season and upped its Metacritic rating, meaning more positive reviews raised its profile) and then Woody Allen's expensive flop Crises in Six Scenes (which cost a reported $80 million).

One Mississippi won't ever be mass appeal but it's definitely in line with prestige stuff that FX and HBO are trying. Take away the end result of Crisis in Six Scenes (which was legitimately leaden), and focus instead on the headline-generating move of getting Allen to make his first TV series, and it's hard to imagine others, if they had the money, not doing the same thing (many tried). That is to say, whatever Bezos wants now in the form of enormously splashy and high-quality international hits (easy as that sounds), Amazon was previously out there taking big swings in the creative community.

This year was better than 2016, qualitatively, but also a mixed bag. On the drama side, Sneaky Pete and Patriot  didn't make a lot of noise but were both surprisingly excellent (hit the links to find my two positive reviews): a combination of accessible and ambitious, and both extremely entertaining. I would be disappointed to see either go. They deserve a wider audience and a chance to grow, which they hopefully will get as both were renewed for a second season, but management change brings lots of flux.

Obviously we know that two other dramas in 2017, Z: The Beginning of Everything and The Last Tycoon, are now the narrative straw that broke Bezos' back, but on the comedy side I Love Dick failed to generate much buzz as well, and neither did the much better (and weirder) concept series Comrade Detective (in the streaming world there's always the hope that people will circle back and find a show, but lots of stuff just winds up lost under a pile).

The lone bright spot on the comedy side in 2017 was The Tick, a feel-good dose of wackiness that went over well with critics (as my linked review attests) and could be a nice build-out for Amazon going forward.

On the unscripted side, Amazon has The Grand Tour, the new name for the former Top Gear, which is one of the all-time greats in the unscripted world. It also got a lot of acclaim for The New Yorker Presents, and separately features a robust lineup of children's programming.

Now, is there a Game of Thrones in there? Of course not. That's true of every content provider except HBO. But whoever takes over Amazon Studios has a nice collection of shows going forward — series that are better than a lot of Amazon's top-tier competitors have in their rotation. It's clear that along with Price's disastrous sexual harassment cloud and some dubious missteps with series creators, there is much that needs fixing at Amazon, but it's also true that the streamer was and is producing a slate of shows to be proud of, belying the currently popular narrative.

A lot of success in television is luck. HBO had to reshoot the Game of Thrones pilot and stuck with the sprawling, unproven drama. It had to shut down Westworld to get it right. AMC picked up and developed Breaking Bad after FX had it and passed on it. The cultural and political timing of The Handmaid's Tale undoubtedly helped Hulu win an Emmy. A number of Netflix's most acclaimed or popular series (from Making a Murderer to Stranger Things) were instances where the streamer didn't really know what it had. Again — luck. The sheer volume of Netflix's strategy — and yes, a pretty good eye for quality as well — has seen its percentages pay off. Amazon has made a number of quality shows and has always been in the zeitgeist, a difficult but essential trick to pull off in the Peak TV era.

And even though the Price-Weinstein tragedy has killed off the untitled David O. Russell project, the streamer is moving forward with Matt Weiner's The Romanoffs (now without co-funding from The Weinstein Co.), and has a number of other series in development that insiders seem keen on, including Tong Wars, the Paul Attanasio epic about Chinese organized crime, being directed by Wong Kar Wai. And yes there's hope that Tong Wars can be — wait for it — the next Game of Thrones, with huge international buy-in. Prior to Price's headline-making implosion, it's apparent Amazon was trying to think bigger and perhaps less niche, which was then echoed in the stories (that Price kicked off) about Bezos wanting change. Whoever takes over Amazon Studios will be doing it after the pivot has started (or, more directly, a real mission statement was relayed from the top down). Jumping in now is absolutely not a salvage situation. It's a golden opportunity.