Amazon hits some bumps with its third pilot season, but 'Red Oaks' and 'The Cosmopolitans' show promise
Amazon keeps accelerating the pace and output of its "pilot season" process. The original batch of Amazon pilots were presented to the public in April of last year; of those, only "Alpha House" (which got renewed for a second season) and "Betas" (which remains in limbo) got picked up. The second batch of pilots were unveiled less than a year later, and Amazon ordered almost all of them — other than "Rebels," the pro football comedy that no one seemed to like — to series. That was in February, and while none of those new shows has debuted — "Transparent," the best of the bunch, will premiere all of its episodes, Netflix-style, on September 26 — Amazon yesterday unveiled its third pilot season, even as there's already news about casting for the fourth wave of Amazon pilots. At this rate, they may be ordering some shows before a word's even been written, and traveling back in time to cancel others before the creator has even thought of the idea.
Since only two Amazon shows have actually presented full seasons so far, and since Amazon ordered virtually all of its second batch of pilots, it's hard to identify too many patterns in what Amazon executives and Amazon customers are looking for in their shows. But the third batch — two hour-long dramas and three half-hour comedies — do offer some clues, as well as some things to get excited about and some things to be disappointed by.
You can see a through line, for instance, between "Transparent" (Jill Soloway's story of an aging man who begins a gender transition, and the adult children reacting to that) and the new "The Cosmopolitans," the Whit Stillman-created tale of a group of young American expats (one of them played by Adam Brody) living in Paris. Both shows would have very few homes available to them (maybe HBO would have considered one or both, filling one of their token "we don't think this is commercial at all, but we like it" slots like "Enlightened" and "Tremé" have in the past), and both are clearly the unfiltered work of their creators. "The Cosmopolitans" feels exactly like the first half-hour of a Whit Stillman film (of which there have been precious few), even beyond the Chloe Sevigny cameo. Like "Transparent," I can imagine "Cosmopolitans" attracting a small but very passionate audience.
That said, "Cosmopolitans" isn't as satisfying a viewing experience as "Transparent" was. There's wry banter and a fantastic sense of place, but it really doesn't function as the first episode of a TV show, because it just stops at the half-hour mark. Stillman told Grantland that he originally wrote an hour-long pilot, and when he wasn't satisfied with the second half, Amazon told him to just shoot the first, and it plays that way. I like Stillman's work enough (and am glad to see Brody in a regular series again) that I'll watch more if Amazon orders this to series, but it's the second-best of this wave of pilots by default as much as it is for the pleasures of Stillman's writing.
The best of this round by a country mile is "Red Oaks," produced by Steven Soderbergh, directed by David Gordon Green and written by Greg Jacobs and Joe Gangemi. A period comedy about a teenage tennis pro (Craig Roberts from "Submarine") at a country club in 1985, it feels fully-formed from its opening moments, is funny when it wants to be and has an instantly-deep bench of characters. Now, many of them are playing off of familiar archetypes from other teen and/or period comedies — as the mustachioed photographer who shoots all the weddings and bar mitzvahs at the club (and who enjoys hitting on the younger female employees), Josh Meyers is essentially playing Wooderson from "Dazed and Confused" — but the show neatly straddles a line between pastiche and sincerity. The broadcast networks are going to be debuting their fall shows in the coming weeks, and I'd rather see a second episode of "Red Oaks" than virtually anything the networks are giving us.
The third comedy, "Really," has the bad timing to come only six weeks after the debut of the virtually identical "Married" on FX. Created by and co-starring Jay Chandrasekhar, it's another story of a marriage that's starting to go stale from routine, the stress of work and parenting, and a lack of regular sex. This is a more upscale version of that story, with different actors (Sarah Chalke here fills the role played by her former "Mad Love" co-star Judy Greer on "Married," and the supporting cast includes Selma Blair, Collette Wolfe, Lindsay Sloane and Travis Schuldt) and slightly more explicit humor. But otherwise, it's really damn close. "Married" has gotten better after a really unpleasant pilot, and maybe "Really" could as well, but I'd only rank it third among the new Amazon pilots because the dramas are not good at all.
"Hand of God" is another Cable Anti-Hero 101 show, structured very similarly to Starz's "Boss," with a revered authority figure (Ron Perlman as a SoCal judge) who is either losing his mind or hearing actual messages from God after a traumatic incident inspires him to become born again. There are lots of shady backroom deals (many of them made by Andre Royo from "The Wire" as the city's mayor, and/or by Dana Delany as Perlman's wife), lots of religious and/or hallucinatory images, lots of violence and nudity and every other cliché we've come to expect from these kinds of shows, all presented in a way that suggests they are profound rather than silly and pretentious. It looks pretty (Marc Forster directed the pilot), but this is one I powered through out of professional obligation rather than enjoyment.
On the plus side, "Hand of God" at least gives a clear sense of what kind of show it wants to be and what stories it's telling. The pilot for "Hysteria" (written by Shaun Cassidy) is... well... I'm not entirely sure what it's about. There's some kind of strange disease — possibly psychosomatic, possibly real, possibly spread via social media (topical horror!) — and there's Mena Suvari as the doctor brought in to figure out what the hell is going on, all while she battles her own personal demons, and there's a lot of angst involving a cop having an affair with a teenage temptress, and a lot of yelling and spasming and occasional dance performances. But the whole thing's a mess overall that repeats certain images way too many times just to make sure we understand the nature of viral video, Suvari doesn't provide enough of a center, and too much of what happens is cryptic solely for the sake of being cryptic. There's no there there, which is unfortunate, because Cassidy usually does very well at playing with genre tropes.
Again, we still have a bit of time before the second wave of Amazon shows actually start appearing online as more than just pilots. I'm looking forward to several of them (and will be running interviews with several of the creators closer to their respective debuts). That second batch of pilots wasn't perfect, but it was a notable improvement on the first group, and suggested a healthy growth curve for Amazon. This third group has its highlights (even if "Red Oaks" is the only one emerged from the pilot oven baked all the way through), but it's also a reminder that content providers don't inherently get better and better all the time. HBO had some bumps after its initial wave of millennial successes, just as FX did after the troika of "The Shield," "Nip/Tuck" and "Rescue Me." But it's always fun to see a new operator at work, even if it only adds to the Too Much Interesting TV dilemma.
What did everybody else think? Is there a new Amazon pilot you're especially eager to see as a series? One you wish you could down-vote as many times as possible? And are you getting impatient for any of the second wave shows to finally debut?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org