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The first major threat to broadcast television’s dominance was, of course, cable television — and that was pretty much the only threat until deep into the Internet era when predictions began rolling in about how we’d all be watching TV on our computers eventually, and TV itself would die a slow death.
Obviously, that dark prophecy never came to pass. The Internet needed content, and content isn’t cheap. But as Americans became more comfortable with streaming content on their computers and mobile devices (high-speed connections helped a lot), the time for Big Money arrived. Netflix proved that if you could pony up the funding, talented writers and directors who had bought into the multiplatform world would come and play. Hulu branched out into original content as well. And recently, online retailer Amazon, which doesn’t lack for money, either, started Amazon Studios and adopted the Netflix model — but with a twist: It would “crowd source” its pilots. Its most recent batch (not counting children’s programming), currently streaming on its site, comprises five new scripted pilots — two hourlong dramas and three half-hour comedies.
No one can ever doubt that the TV model has changed for good. Amazon, with its ability to draw in name talent (see: Big Money), is impressively building on what Netflix and Hulu are doing, and the result is that viewers will have even more options — a prospect that’s more than a little daunting given how overwhelmed with quality choices we are already.
With this batch of pilots, it becomes clear that Amazon is a player. The company has previously released the political drama Alpha House and the comedy Betas, but this second wave of pilots could amount to bigger, broader success. Though some are stronger than others, all five pilots make legitimate cases for being greenlighted right now, and it’s easy to see all of them attracting some kind of devoted audience (how large, of course, is the question).
For the last two years I’ve been a judge at the New York Television Festival, and I can tell you that there are plenty of independent series creators out there who, given the chance, could make successful shows for either broadcast or cable. Funding, of course, is the key issue for independents, which is clearly not a problem for Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. Given that they have money to burn, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that breaking the insular traditions of Hollywood has yielded quality results. I wouldn’t say the Amazon offerings come anywhere close to that spirit of open competition at the NYTF, but they are another testament to the depth of the below-the-line talent pool.
Here then, a look at the Amazon pilots:
Bosch: Based on the popular detective books by Michael Connelly and starring what seems like a perfectly cast Titus Welliver as Los Angeles homicide detective Harry Bosch, this series maneuvers between a modern noir story — beautifully shot night scenes, a smoking and drinking Bosch listening to old-school jazz in his dimly lit apartment (with an overly spectacular view for his pay grade) — and a more conventional cop drama. The latter bit is what might hurt Bosch, which does what it does with flair but isn’t moving the needle on originality. Instead, the series works best when allowing Welliver to inhabit Bosch’s skin — a flawed guy seemingly made to be a homicide cop (given that he displays little passion for anything else in his life). The pedigree here is strong, with Eric Overmyer (Treme, The Wire) at the helm and deserving a whole lot of slack to see what he can do. I would like to see more episodes of Bosch to see if it shifts more toward something you’d view on FX or HBO, or if it’s really more like a network procedural. At the very least, the pilot established the character of Bosch, which is essential. Viewers should know by the end of the hour if they want more of him.
The After: Chris Carter (The X-Files) returns to television with another series about paranormal activity — this time something completely unexplained in the pilot (which may have been the best thing about it). All hell breaks loose one day in Los Angeles and a group of strangers are, at least initially, stranded in a parking garage. They are a disparate — but also kind of a cookie-cutter — menagerie: a female cop; a clown (yep), played by Jamie Kennedy, who stands out here; an escaped convict who claims he’s innocent; a slick lawyer and his ditzy sidekick; a French actress who might be show’s main protagonist; a drunken, lecherous Brit; and a super-rich widow whose sprawling mansion could become the group’s safe haven (if there is such a thing in The After, which turns end-of-the-world-spooky just before the credits roll). The best part of this pilot is not knowing the nature of the recent apocalyptic event (and also its channeling a bit of Carter’s underappreciated series Millennium). The worst part is that The After feels like a broadcast network series with pointlessly excessive swearing and a pointless nude scene.
Transparent: Created by Jill Soloway (Afternoon Delight, How to Make It in America, United States of Tara), this is Amazon’s best offering and is generating the most buzz among critics — but it also has some worrisome weaknesses in the premise. This is a dramedy series where it’s much too easy to give away the twist in the premise, so I won’t. But it revolves around three siblings — the exceptionally cast Gaby Hoffmann, Jay Duplass and Amy Landecker — struggling in their own various ways to find themselves and make a living, when they are called together by their father, Jeffrey Tambor (excellent as usual), for some big news. It’s a very indie-movie-ish 30-minute pilot and was lovely to watch. I would watch this every week. But I doubt it has very wide appeal and, once the twist to the premise is revealed, it’s hard to imagine how that news is going to be the driving force, episode after episode, for the show. But again, this is the one Amazon hits out of the park.
Mozart in the Jungle: Based on the book Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs & Classical Music by Blair Tindall, this half-hour dramedy has the best, most unique (and welcome) premise: A look at the world of classical music, the people who dedicate their lives to it and how there’s so much struggle for so many talented people devoted to their art. The pilot does an excellent job of focusing on a variety of ages as it circles around the New York Symphony. Malcolm McDowell is the outgoing, aging maestro, replaced by the most sought-after of new conductors, the flashy young Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal); Bernadette Peters is the company’s chairwoman; Saffron Burrows is the talented, midcareer cellist who helps out the fresh-faced newcomer, oboist Hailey (Lola Kirke, sister of Girls‘ Jemima Kirke). Any time we’re given a premise that hasn’t been explored much on television, I’m in. Especially if it’s well done, which Mozart in the Jungle is. Directed by Paul Weitz, it’s created and written by Alex Timbers, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman.
The Rebels: This is the weakest of the five offerings by a wide margin, as the comedy tries to tackle the world of professional football in a story where a former cheerleader and wife of the owner of the fictional (and awful) Los Angeles Rebels is forced to take over the team when her husband dies. Natalie Zea (Justified) completely and utterly nails the part, but there’s just not enough here to ground the series. It’s over-the-top, flimsy (as most sports comedies are) and has its funniest moment when a coked-up monkey takes a gun and starts shooting. I would watch the monkey do that every week, but The Rebels seems slight and definitely more of a broadcast series (though it lays on the swearing to seem more cable-like).
I would rate the Amazon pilots in order thusly: Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle, Bosch, The After and The Rebels. But the fact is, Amazon Studios took a big leap in getting better at what it does, and all of these shows could easily be viable. It will be interesting to see how many Amazon goes with — especially since the company isn’t actually hurting for money.
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