Amazon released pilot episodes for its 14 new shows last Friday, and asked for feedback from viewers to determine which Originals to pick up for full-season runs. Then earlier this week, the company announced that together the pilots were Amazon's most-watched shows over the weekend, and touted the fact that 80 percent of reviewers gave the shows 4- or 5-star ratings. Excited about the possibility of more high quality, made-for-streaming series like Netflix’s House of Cards, I sat down to watch all of Amazon’s new shows to see if the company’s first original content is worthy of an audience.
With two possible exceptions, it’s not.
Of the 14 pilots, six are made for children — I’m not exactly the target audience, so I didn’t bother to sample those. The other eight are half-hour comedies, which all come with "this show is intended for adult audiences" warning labels.
Familiar faces, familiar shows, familiar jokes
Amazon seems to have followed a similar formula for its six live-action pilots: cast a recognizable star, replicate a successful theme, expand on popular brands, and, when in doubt, make the show about the internet. Alpha House has John Goodman and politics; Browsers has Bebe Neuwirth and a Huffington Post copycat; Onion News Network has Jeffrey Tambor and The Onion; Those Who Can’t emulates the stupid humor of Workaholics; Zombieland has, well, Zombieland and zombies; and Betas has Ed Begley, Jr. plus a tech startup. Amazon’s two animated comedies, Dark Minions and Supanatural, also take cues from already popular animated series like Archer, The Cleveland Show, and even American Dad. It’s neither a surprising nor unique formula, but it doesn’t quite work for Amazon.
Four United States senators live together in a house and comedy ensues, except it rarely does. Goodman leads a cast of recognizable faces through a relatively unremarkable 25 minutes of television. Bill Murray – yes, the Bill Murray – cameos in the opening scene to set up the plot for the entire episode: his character, a corrupt senator, is turning himself in to the Department of Justice and, thus, can no longer occupy the… Alpha House.
The rest of the episode focuses on the three remaining senators as they both attempt to find a new roommate and try to make themselves appealing to voters for their reelection campaigns. The jokes revolve around campaign donations, Republican stereotypes (the four senators are all members of the GOP), filibuster techniques, and political opponents, but they frequently fail to land. In a world of rich political dramas and comedies like The West Wing, House of Cards, and Veep, Alpha House features pretty visuals, solid acting, a cameo by Stephen Colbert, and a fatal flaw: it’s just not that funny.
This show offers a second warning label: "the following program contains musical numbers." Unlike in Glee or Smash, however, the musical numbers in Browsers are entirely pointless. There’s no facade of a high school chorus or a Broadway musical — the show’s creators simply liked the idea that these characters break out into song sometimes. The songs are meant to be funny, but they add neither quality humor nor entertainment value to the show. One of the songs concerns a girl’s skills at finding viral videos, and it's about as bad as you’d expect it to be.
Browsers is set at a Huffington Post-type website, which hires four interns and plans to fire one in a very Alpha House-like move (only in this show no one ends up leaving). The show makes jokes about unpaid interns, content-aggregating, overachievers, office sex, and more. Bebe Neuwirth, famous for her role in Cheers and as a veteran of the theatre, plays an Arianna Huffington-like hard-ass boss. While she’s funny, sings well, and is probably the only high point of the show, the pilot doesn’t work because the four interns just aren’t that likable. In fact, the only character worth watching was Nuewirth’s. Otherwise, it’s mostly just silly puns and jokes about the internet that seem like they were written by people that don’t fully understand it.
Onion News Empire
Picture The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s idealistic drama about covering the news with virtue, and then swap in stories that would be on The Onion, with jokes as ridiculous and over-the-top as Sorkin’s writing is smart. That’s Onion News Empire. While The Onion’s satirical news is clever and timely, this show’s jokes lack the real-world context that make the former so great. The show’s visual style even equals that of The Newsroom, which gives it credibility as a strong satire. Adding to that credibility is a strong, funny cast, lead by Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor. But the premise of The Onion’s newsroom as a real place, with real people covering "real" news, just didn’t leave me laughing, and the show’s lack of real-world context removes the best part of The Onion’s humor. The show might actually work well on Adult Swim near other stupid-comedy, high-quality shows like Childrens Hospital, but alone it misses.
Those Who Can’t
Those Who Can’t is Amazon’s answer to Workaholics, following three guys as they fail to be good teachers. One, a PE coach, gets hit with a ball by a student mid-way through a lecture about the value of dodgeball in real life — the show opens with this scene, and I stopped watching after all of 27 seconds before realizing I had to give it another go for journalistic reasons. Another protagonist, a Spanish teacher, corrects his class’ pronunciations to "the Queen’s Spanish." The third, a history teacher, locks his classroom door and raises the heat in an attempt at making the classroom feel like a coal mine, and then doesn’t let a girl leave to go the bathroom.
Each Those Who Can’t joke seeks that rare breed of stupid comedy that’s both clever and funny at the same time, but few succeed. Workaholics works because its characters work in a field where what they do doesn’t matter, and the audience is meant to want them to suck at their jobs. But in Those Who Can’t, the humor of the show relies not only on how idiotic they are, but how easily students can take advantage of them. Neither the premise that a teacher would allow students to nail them with balls during PE, nor that a teacher wouldn’t know how to count down to one properly, makes me laugh. It smacks of a knockoff, without either the context or execution that make Workaholics successful.
"Hey, a lot of people like that Zombieland movie and that Walking Dead show. We should totally make a zombie show! Let’s see if we can get the guys who made the movie to make it into a TV show!" That's presumably how Zombieland, the TV show, happened, and it's exactly what the show is. Zombies eating humans does provide some shockingly solid humor, and the show uses the movie's funny narrator-and-graphics structure to explain the rules of surviving a post-apocalyptic universe, but it can't match the movie's effects — Zombieland's explosions look like they were made in the Action Movie FX iPhone app. And yet again, the show is filled with stupid humor, an odd but recurring theme among all of Amazon’s shows.
The characters here are surprisingly likable, but unfortunately, there’s not much else there besides an attempt to capitalize on a popular trend. You're better off re-watching The Walking Dead or Zombieland, the movie. They’re both better than this.
Amazon might actually have a winner in Betas, about a startup in Silicon Valley. As unoriginal as the story sounds, no one’s yet made a TV series about a startup — not counting the reality show on Bravo, at least, and this is a far better show anyway. The lead character, Trey, is clearly based on Mark Zuckerberg, or at least the version Jesse Eisenberg played in The Social Network — he seems to switch between charming, socially inept, clever, and rude a bit too much during the episode, but he’s likable enough. Equally so is his quirky programmer counterpart Nash, who is perpetually nervous and insecure about the team’s app. We observe as the two fight about the app’s readiness, as the sometimes-charming lead attempts to woo a woman in a bar, and as they pitch to an investor played wonderfully by Ed Begley, Jr.
Surprisingly, Betas is the first scripted show about a startup, and it's also Amazon's best
The somewhat disappointing subplot of the show revolves around two of their colleagues, a chubby, awkward coder and an older creepy man with an unclear role on the team, who provide most of the requisite dumb humor – like an entire scene devoted to dick pics. The humor didn’t necessarily make me laugh out loud, but it was clever, and I'm sort of hooked. That’s partly because this story hasn’t been told well on television yet, and a technology startup is an interesting and rich setting for a series, but it’s mainly because the show is just smarter and more intriguing than the rest of Amazon’s pilots.
The interesting thing about Dark Minions isn’t the show itself, but that in order to save time and money, the majority of the show is just a series of sketches with dialogue. (The main character, Mel, explains before the show begins that if Dark Minions gets picked up for a full season, it’ll all be high-quality stop-motion animation.) The pilot takes place in the distant future, and follows two mediocre humans working for an evil, intergalactic empire. The plot is rather unimportant, however: the show is mainly a collection of college-age humor about working for an evil boss, space, marijuana use, and so forth — think Archer in space. There’s a planet called "Kav Dick-and-Balls," which is pretty indicative of what to expect from Dark Minions' universe.
Supanatural revolves around two sassy (too sassy for the "er" in supernatural, apparently) modern-age mercenaries hired to defend our planet. It's a running stream of pop culture puns about Instagram, The Wire, and more, right from the the opener — a bit revolving around Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. One of the leads, Lucretia, touches the skull and her hair immediately zaps up in perm-like fashion. "Hold still, I gotta Instagram this," her comrade Hezbah says. "Hold still real quick." We learn in the next scene that the Pope hired the pair to take the skull. Yes, the Pope. And, yes, I laughed. In fact, I laughed more watching Supanatural than any of Amazon’s other pilots, though that’s pretty faint praise. Is the humor clever? Not really. But the mix of over-the-top sci-fi and pop culture references, combined with endless sauciness from the two leads, did keep me chuckling enough to want to watch more.
Some of Amazon’s pilots might work on regular broadcast or cable TV, but the company can’t rely on already successful lead-ins or that you’ll just turn on the television and flip to its channel. Amazon needs to convince viewers that its content is worth actively seeking out and paying for. (Maybe on that upcoming set-top box.)
Netflix has House of Cards, Arrested Development, and the buzz of being the first company of its kind to stream high-quality, high-value content. The company analyzed user data, brought on big names with big money, and confidently offered a slate of content fine-tuned to its subscribers. Amazon adopted the same strategy, only less so: medium names, medium money. But with their last step, Amazon and Netflix are playing totally different games. Where Netflix is selling select gourmet snacks, Amazon is asking their subscribers to taste samples and choose which flavor will the be the next Lay’s potato chip. And none of the flavors even compare to Netflix’s snacks.
Netflix and Hulu took time to get original content right, too
In fairness, Netflix didn’t immediately get it right either. Its first original series, Lilyhammer, about a mobster in witness protection, still hasn’t caught on. And let’s not forget about Hulu, which has been trying with original content for a few years now without much success. But both companies’ first attempts – Battleground, a smart, political mockumentary about a senatorial campaign, and Lilyhammer – were far better than the majority of Amazon’s current crop.
The appeal of Amazon’s model is easy to understand: studios would save hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, by only producing content with guaranteed audiences and not wasting money on producing multiple episodes of unpopular shows. But perhaps the experiment would offer better results if any of the pilots were truly worth watching.