Critic's Notebook: Reviewing Amazon's 'Last Tycoon' and 'The Interestings' Pilots

The Last Tycoon -Still 1 -Amazon-Publicity-H 2016
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

With each new batch of pilots, critics struggle to make sense of what, exactly, the Amazon original programming brand is, a task made more unenviable by the fact that Amazon clearly doesn't specifically care. Amazon makes a big deal out of the democratized pilot process, but then institutes a separate set of rules for too-cool-to-pilot auteurs like Woody Allen. Amazon urges us to express interest in and build hype for each new piloting round and then series get picked up or dropped or shifted into limbo with minimal ceremony. I could say, "I'm going to boycott the next round of Amazon pilots until something conclusive happens with 'The Cosmopolitans' or somebody comes out and explains to me why Sharon Lawrence was wearing egregious old-age makeup in the wisely jettisoned 'The After," but what would be the point?

Released last week, Amazon's new pilot slate is limited to only two hour-longs and a bunch of kids programming. Offering only two dramas this time is safe and blissfully contained, a contrast to the last pilot season in November, which had six shows and I can't remember which were ordered to series, which were killed and which might still have hope. I actually had to go back and look at my conversation-review with Tim Goodman to even remember any of the pilots other than the Tig Notaro I'd think this was an absurd formula for building momentum, but what do I know?

The pilots that just went up for public consumption are The Last Tycoon and The Interestings and maybe a formula is finally beginning to emerge, since both are tony, middle-brow period dramas with decent pedigree and production values and very little urgency, traits also held by Good Girls Revolt and Z last time around.

The traditional purpose of pilots for networks and cable has long been to force the hand of executives, to say, "Not only is this template for a series you want to watch, but if you don't pick us up, you'll be forever haunted by not knowing what comes next." But not only do The Last Tycoon and The Interestings have no episodic structure, they also have no episodic build, picking practically arbitrary places to cap their initial hours. This feels like the next evolution in our binge-happy world, one not even reached by market leader Netflix. These two pilots don't even try to drag you into binge-viewing, they just know that once you're bothering with one episode, you're probably going to keep going, so there's no point in resorting to cliffhangers or twists. The theory would be that you're no longer hooked after you've dedicated an hour, you're hooked once you bother to press play in the first place. As such, The Last Tycoon and The Interestings both feel like they're designed as 10-episode (or even eight or six) miniseries and not as regular TV shows at all, but who orders a pilot for a miniseries?

The Interestings in particular is a pilot for a show you can guarantee won't work for five seasons, but could be completely engaging for one. Adapted by Lyn Greene and Richard Levine from the Meg Wolitzer best-seller, The Interestings focuses on a group of insufferable aspiring artists at a summer camp in 1974 paralleled against the insufferable grown-ups they've become in 1985 and then in 1995 as their dreams have become variably crushed or abetted by their actual talent. The friends are harboring one or two secrets that the pilot, directed in unremarkable-but-pretty Mona Lisa Smile mode by Mike Newell, deigns to only tease, because there really isn't much to the show beyond that.

That sounds negative, but I'm a sucker for summer camp stories and the cast, headed by the likes of Lauren Ambrose, David Krumholtz, Jessica Pare, Jessica Collins and Matt Barr, is very fine. The more finite you tell me this story is, the more interested I'd be in watching more, because I love insufferable characters in short windows. I'm there! Tell me I need to watch the people in The Interestings for 50 hours and I'd politely pass, but the characters mostly feel prickly and annoying and real thanks to the casting and performances, with the writing coming across as hollow and self-satisfied in ways meant to reflect on these characters and not on Greene and Levine. The adult versions of the characters are all well-matched with their juvenile equivalents and the only misjudged piece of casting is Gabriel Ebert as the character we're repeatedly told is "normal," even though nobody involved understands how to depict "normalcy." The pilot isn't built around a reveal or an emotional moment and it just fizzles away leaving me with two mysteries that could have been solved by any character having a direct conversation about anything, but the prolongation of limitedly compelling secrets is part of the core flaw of NBC's short-lived Game of Silence or any of the myriad examples of why then-and-now stories like this work better in movies than on TV and why they work better in books than in either of those other forms.

Amazon's take on The Last Tycoon has been far better visualized. Written and directed by Shattered Glass filmmaker Billy Ray, this adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel about pre-World War II Hollywood is packed with 1930s costumes, behind-the-scenes studio glitz and flawlessly lit stars whose cheekbones could have played in any era, including Matt Bomer, Lily Collins and Dominique McElligott. Shot with a ravishing gauziness by Daniel Moder and accompanied by Mychael Danna's swelling score, The Last Tycoon captures the surface of Fitzgerald's novel, providing a helpful reminder that capturing the surface of a Fitzgerald novel isn't actually all that hard to do if you have a talented production team. Both Baz Luhrmann and Jack Clayton got the gloss of The Great Gasby quite well and Elia Kazan's 1976 take on The Last Tycoon was nothing if not good looking.

Figuring out how to play Fitzgerald's love of grand novelistic conceits in a different medium has been much more complicated, because either you abandon the mythologizing of characters that the author loves so much, or else you're stuck with characters saying grandiloquent things like "He's broken and he believes in things that don't exist anymore" and Lily Collins just isn't a good enough actress to deliver 20 lines of that ilk and I fear nobody would be. Bomer's rising cinema wunderkind Monroe Stahr, based on Irving Thalberg, is a concept, an ideal, an abstraction, no more meant to be played literally than Jay Gatsby. He's a character best talked about in awed tones by other characters, but having characters doing all of that heavy lifting while also forcing Bomer to embody a figure crushed by both tragedy and his own genius is nearly impossible. Just as adaptations of Gatsby have been distracted by Gatsby and lost interest in Nick, the book's actual main character, it's easy to forget that Cecelia, creatively inclined daughter of a brusk studio boss and Collins' role here, is the character around and through which much of Fitzgerald's book is told. The idealizing of Stahr makes more sense when it's the idealizing of an unformed young woman, rather than the idealizing of a filmmaker. The Last Tycoon tries to play it both ways.

Because Fitzgerald's book is not narratively hefty, to say nothing of that "unfinished" impediment, Ray has fleshed out the Hollywood intrigue and very smartly concentrated on lobbying from the German government to push studios to deliver products friendly to the Nazi regime and its interests. This plotline is taken much more from recent research into Hollywood and its misguided propagandistic past than anything Fitzgerald-related, but it also gives the main characters things to do that could expand this story well beyond the limitations of the book. Does that mean The Last Tycoon would be destined to become a series about cinematic espionage, featuring Bomer as a doomed crusading visionary with a ticking time bomb in his chest rather than... F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon? Probably, but the literal version of The Last Tycoon wouldn't fill six episodes.

So even with Fitzgerald scholar A. Scott Berg as a consulting producer, The Last Tycoon will be best served if it just goes off on its own path, at least if it wants to be an ongoing drama. On that journey, it'll benefit from Bomer's chiseled polish, Collins' Hepburn-esque expressiveness (which doesn't extend to her all-too-modern cadences) and McElligott's well-applied Irish glamour. Grammer has decided to be surprisingly understated in the pilot, which may pay dividends in keeping the character from just playing as caricature, and Rosemarie DeWitt has a tough-as-nails aspect that was made for this world. If the second episode pushes propulsively into its own plot, I'd forgive a meandering pilot, that seems to cut to Grammer's character staring out wistfully on a sparse Hooverville shanty-town whenever it needs to drain momentum entirely.

And if I want Fitzgerald's actual The Last Tycoon, I can always reread Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon.

Earlier, I described The Last Tycoon and The Interestings as pilots for miniseries, so what makes them great for Amazon is that if you like either pilot and they get ordered, you can keep watching, but if you liked either pilot and they don't get ordered, Amazon knows where you can buy the book to find out what comes next or at least the thing Goodman did in The Interestings that nobody wants to just come out and say. And if The Last Tycoon gets ordered as more than a miniseries, it won't be exactly like the book, but the book will still be available for purchase on Amazon. Amazon wins either way and this may prove to be the smartest strategy the company has yet employed for programming. In these case of these two new pilots, it's not instantly a recipe for great art, but "great art" isn't a reliable business model anyway.