Employing the tactic now known as the House of Cards method (after the Netﬂix-produced Kevin Spacey drama), Amazon has bankrolled fourteen pilots for its new Prime Instant Video service, taking a seemingly democratic twist on the TV-industry convention of letting the public decide which series ascend into multi-episode Heaven, and which are cast into the junkyard of what-were-they-thinking Hell.
I just spent half of my snow day watching the eight comedy pilots on which Amazon has gambled its reputation, and I can assure you that thereʼs nothing democratic going on here. With a couple of excellent exceptions, the Internet behemoth has mostly xeroxed a handful of established and successful TV shows, while peppering in some cursing and drug use that will allow the word "edgy" to be liberally used in press releases. Still, a few gems -- Onion News Empire, Alpha House (staring John Goodman) and the Denver-centric Grawlix comedy Those Who Canʼt -- are more than worthy of repeat business.
See also: - Andrew Orvedahl on Those Who Can't, the Grawlix pilot for Amazon - Louis C.K. debuts new HBO special, continues frightening us all with his vivid logic - Fred Savage: Horrible romantic advice from Wonder Years to Ladies Night
While there was probably a generous amount of creative license given to each of the seriesʼ creators, a blind-folded Honey Boo Boo on heroin could still spot the demographic targeting in Amazonʼs selections. Viewed all at once, the eight pilots feel so calculated, it's embarrassing. Four of them revolve around ambitious youngsters facing the odds, three exist in dangerous other-worlds of space or zombies, marijuana is smoked in four different episodes (itʼs as if there were some kind of recent legislation passed shifting public attitudes toward grass), two are hipster-nerd stories, and three tales of grown men with arrested development.
Don't confuse the latter with the actual Arrested Development -- the other anticipated series on Netﬂixʼs roster -- even though Amazon would probably like you to. It appears to be trying to hook fans of a show like Glee with its cringe-worthy Browsers (bright-eyed young bloggers try to make it at a Gawker-style media empire while randomly bursting into show tunes -- and, yes, it's even worse than it sounds), or turn The Big Bang Theory watchers onto Beta (techsters create a social media app while falling in love and hanging with Moby).
Those Who Canʼt is tailor-made for Workaholics and Itʼs Always Sunny In Philadelphia devotees. While Onion News Empire attempts the social wit of Portlandia, Alpha House wants The Daily Show demo (one of the character appears on The Colbert Report), and Zombieland is after fans of Zombieland.
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Iʼm not saying that nothing good can come of this. The creators of these pilots probably knew what kind of machinery they were climbing into, and some have used it to their advantage. Washington mock-fest Alpha House does an excellent job of satirizing the juvenile arrogance that comes with fame in politics -- and if Bill Murrayʼs appearance in the ﬁrst ﬁve minutes is anything more than a cameo, the show has a promising future as a smart-humor sendup of the GOP.
Those Who Canʼt isnʼt without its cheap, these-will-do gags, but the dialogue is delivered with a charming, whip-snap rhythm worthy of a Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn exchange. And the few black marks it does have are eclipsed by killer one-liners like "You didnʼt come up on the streets, you bought those tattoos with college loans." The pilot focuses on three inept Denver high school teachers, and we get to see Adam Cayton-Holland attempt to teach Latinos "the Queenʼs Spanish" (the way they speak in Spain), Andrew Orvedahl accidentally inform a teen sheʼs pregnant in front of her peers, and Ben Roy lock his students in a hot, airless room with no bathroom breaks as a historical illustration of the industrial revolution.
Without having seen a handful of episodes of Aaron Sorkinʼs The Newsroom, you probably wouldnʼt get the larger joke of Onion News Empire and its South Park-esque parody. But the value of this show lies not in its storyline (thankfully -- because that's pretty weak), but in its reliance on The Onionʼs spot-on headlines. "The nation's poor have pooled their money and formed an oil company in the hopes of ﬁnally receiving support from the government," and so on.
But I swear on the life of Lorne Michaels that I will throw my Kindle Fire into a ﬂaming junkyard of Palm Pilots if either Zombieland or Browsers is made into a regular series. (Of course Iʼm only kidding -- I donʼt own a Kindle Fire. Who does?) Not only do both of these pilots feature actors with all the charisma of a dog-fart, they maintain unbearable dialogue that appears to be written by clueless teens home-schooled by Stephanie Meyer.
If the unthinkable happens and anything other than Onion, Alpha and Those Who Canʼt sees another episode, Iʼll at least take comfort in the fact that you always start at the bottom with a pilot. The ﬁrst episode is usually as bad as it gets, with varying levels of improvement throughout the series. Which is good, because more than a few of these shows have nowhere to go but up.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.