Monday, February 17, 2014

I watched all of Amazon's original pilots so you don't have to, but you might want to, because they're pretty good.

Here’s a fun fact: My sister really wanted me to live-blog the last four Pretty Little Liars episodes, but instead I watched all of Amazon’s new slate of original pilots, and now I’m going to review them, because that’s a few more hours in which I will be ruining my sister’s life by not live-blogging Pretty Little Liars. Be warned that although none of these reviews completely give away the plots of the pilots, neither are they completely spoiler-free. (Well, the review of Bosch is, but that’s because it’s not a very helpful review.)


The Rebels

From Amazon: “Julie (Natalie Zea) is in over her head when her husband suddenly dies leaving her as sole owner of The LA Rebels, a pro-football team.”

First, since The Rebels is a comedy, a note on the humor. It’s fine. Not great, but fine. If you’re kind of person who laughs when a football player accidentally gets his monkey high on cocaine at a party, and the monkey shoots someone, you will—well, you’ll definitely laugh at The Rebels.

That over with, it’s probably worth saying up front that I don’t really dislike any of Amazon’s adult pilots. They all have merits, and there’s probably an audience that would really enjoy any of them. I’m just not part of the audience for The Rebels. I have no love of football (years when the Steelers are in the playoffs excepted), and though the best shows will make you care about what the characters care about regardless of your personal interests, The Rebels is not one of the best shows. Part of the problem may well be that the main character, Julie, doesn’t actually care about football all that much. She cares about not being told what to do, she cares about the fact that her late husband cared about football, and by the end of the pilot, she has clearly come to care somewhat for her particular team—but she doesn’t care about football. She doesn’t even know much about the sport, which makes it seem the height of folly for her to keep running the team. Her assistant-turned-general manager, Danny (Josh Peck), on the other hand, both knows and cares a great deal about football, and I think it’s that fact that make his scenes the best in the episode. Probably the most compelling moment of the episode is Danny’s emotional turning point, when he goes from making timid but calculated decisions to cut players so that they can bring on new talent, to confidently defending those same players from a hotshot rookie quarterback’s mockery. As Danny reels off a list of reasons why the QB isn’t all that, the combination of detailed expertise (I assume—like I said, I really don’t care about football) and passion made the scene and character click in a way that most of the others did not. So I say, bring on the football jargon! Bring on the complicated sports politics! And, if you absolutely must, bring on the cocaine-addled monkeys.


Bosch

From Amazon: “Based on Michael Connelly's best-selling book series, Bosch (Titus Welliver), an LAPD homicide detective works to solve the murder of a 13-year-old boy while standing trial in federal court for the murder of a serial killer.”

I have nothing against Bosch, but neither do I really have anything for it. It’s well acted, pretty well written, and there are one or two lovely shots, but nothing in it particularly inspired me to keep watching. Nor did anything move me to anger, annoyance, or disdain. Nothing about it distinguished its characters, its plot, its style, or its theme from the other shows that exist in its genre. It’s just kind of there. I suppose, if it gets picked up, it will continue being there, but I probably won’t be there watching it.


Transparent

From Amazon: “An LA family with serious boundary issues have their past and future unravel when a dramatic admission causes everyone's secrets to spill out.”

Amazon’s description of this pilot makes it seem much more eventful than it actually is, since the “dramatic admission” never actually happens, and everyone’s secrets—or rather, two of the four characters’ secrets—don’t spill out until the last ten seconds of the episode. It’s also a “comedy” that I actually found to be less funny than The Rebels, though to be fair, I don’t think it was really trying to be.  Nevertheless, it’s a very good episode of television, in a very HBO kind of way: It’s incredibly low-key, with a cast of entirely believable but far from entirely likeable characters. Actually, if I have a problem with Transparent, the characters are it. Mort (Jeffrey Tambor), the father of the family, is the most likeable and the most sympathetic character—indeed, the only character who manages to really hit a note other than “entitled,” “self-absorbed,” or “oblivious”—but also the least developed, only becoming a major presence about 2/3 of the way through the pilot. Mort’s grown children are the real focus of the episode, and while their self-centeredness (and the fact that it’s, y’know, bad) is obviously a great deal of the point of the series, I imagine it would get tiresome very quickly. I don’t need to like a show’s characters to like a show, nor do I need for the characters to be good people, but I do need to at least enjoy them. The only time I really enjoyed Ali (Gaby Hoffman), Josh (Jay Duplass), and Sarah (Amy Landecker) was the scene when they were all together just before dinner with their father, bickering and reminiscing and making bets on whether their father was gathering to tell them he had cancer. They still weren’t very good people, but something about seeing them together, seeing their history and their rapport and the fact that they did, on some level, have affection for each other, made them more endearing than they had been previously. (It was also probably the closest the pilot came to being funny, and featured the best dialogue of the episode, which helped.) Should Transparent get picked up, I hope it will have more scenes like that one, and fewer of the family members lost in their own worlds. It would make it a lot more fun to watch, in the long run.


The After

From Amazon: “Eight strangers are thrown together by mysterious forces and must help each other survive in a violent world that defies explanation.”

This seems to run exactly contrary to what the rest of the Internet is saying, but I really liked most of The After, up until the last minute, when I thought it kind of fell apart. That’s because the first 50 or so minutes were spent building up a gradual, low-key kind of mystery, and the last minute abandoned that in favor of—well, no spoilers, but it was anything but gradual or low-key. It’s personal preference, of course, but I’m much more interested in the mystery of why all the main characters happen to have the same birthday than I am in whatever the hell was going on at the end of the pilot.

Anyway, despite that, I really did like The After. I’d definitely watch it if got picked up. Partially, it’s just my kind of show; I like myth arcs, I like mysteries and puzzle plots, I like ensembles. Fuck it, I watched six seasons of Lost, and enjoyed five of them. I have no excuse not to watch The After. I’m also quite fond of the main-ish character, Gigi (Louise Monot), who is very competent, but not aggressively so; she’s the kind of person who doesn’t have any specialized training in anything, but thinks to check the sick woman’s purse to see if she has medication. The other characters are not as well developed, but they all get a hint of characterization that would presumably be expanded upon in future episodes. Aldis Hodge gives a great turn as a possibly innocent escaped convict, and that right there is worth the price of admission. The end of the episode—and the inevitable trajectory of shows like this—mean that it probably wouldn’t be a great show, but to the right kind of viewer, The After would be a lot of fun to watch—and in this case, I’m the right kind of viewer.


Mozart in the Jungle

From Amazon: “Sex, drugs--and classical music--what happens behind the curtains at the symphony can be just as captivating as what happens on stage.”

Mozart in the Jungle is by no means a perfect pilot, but it’s probably my favorite of the pilots. It’s full of intrigue and backstabbing and a general edge of tawdriness—not a surprise to anyone who’s read the tagline—but none of that would be particularly interesting if there weren’t one or two characters who genuinely deeply care about the music. The main character (I’m going to go ahead and call her the main character, although she doesn’t get first billing), Hailey (Lola Kirke), fills that role. Hailey is wonderful—gifted, serious, and desperate for a way forward in her career, but with a sense of fun that will probably be a double-edged sword in the symphony’s shifting political culture. She grounds the show, and turns it into something more than simple tawdriness. She turns it into a show about artists.

I’ve seen complaints that Mozart is not a realistic look at symphonies or young musicians. I haven’t the faintest idea whether or not that’s true, but I also don’t care much. The world of the show feels real enough, and the characters—again, especially Hailey—are utterly recognizable. At one point, a group of young musicians play a drinking game that requires them to play their instruments while downing shots. Is that realistic? Well, I don’t know musicians, but I do know twenty-somethings, and that scene instantly revealed the kind of twenty-somethings these people were. I know people like those characters. In the long run, it doesn’t matter much whether the drinking game is realistic, as long as it does its job.

As I said, it’s not a perfect pilot—it’s another comedy, and though it’s more comedic than Transparent, not all the jokes land, nor is the tone completely consistent throughout—but it was one of the two I bothered to fill out a survey for. I’ll say here what I said in the survey: Mozart in the Jungle has something that I hadn’t realized, until now, that I was missing from television.


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I think grading/rating TV episodes is silly, and I also think that ranking them in order of how good they are is silly, so instead I give you Amazon’s pilots, in ascending order of how much I would like for them to be picked up for a full series:


5. Bosch

4. The Rebels

3. Transparent

2. The After

1. Mozart in the Jungle


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And then, after I was done with that, I wanted a way to ruin my sister’s life by not live-blogging Pretty Little Liars for even a little bit longer, so I watched two and a half of Amazon’s five kids’ show pilots. The half-show (Maker Shack Agency) was mostly kind of boring, so I’m only going to review the other two shows.


Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street

From Amazon: “Life is anything but normal for Gortimer and his two best friends, Ranger and Mel, as they navigate Normal Street - an ordinary suburb that has a hint of something magical just beneath the surface.”

I think when I was nine or 10 I would’ve changed the channel whenever this show came on, and it’s a shame, because it’s a lovely pilot. It reminds me of the old-school 90s live-action kids’ shows: So Weird, Are You Afraid of the Dark, The Secret World of Alex Mack, The Mystery Files of Shelby Wu. (Others have brought up The Adventures of Pete and Pete, but that was a little before my time.) It’s not a perfect match for any of them—it’s got a style and a tone all its own—but it definitely feels more like a throwback to times of old than anything you would see on Disney or Nickelodeon today. It’s a sweet, low-key, charming pilot; nothing more exciting happens than a magical frog and a bad case of heat stroke, but the characters are so likeable and curious, and so invested in the events, that it all works. There’s simply nothing quite like Gortimer Gibbon on TV right now. 


Hardboiled Eggheads

From Amazon:  “Miles and Kelvin are brilliant scientists...who happen to be in the fifth grade. The two no-nonsense brainiacs use their smarts and gadgetry to defend their school, city, and occasionally the world from science run amok.”

This show raises so many questions for me. Questions like: Why is the girl not in the description, when she’s clearly one of the main characters? Why can’t the girl do anything? Why does the girl hang out with Miles and Kelvin when they mock her for not being good at math and don’t show up to her spelling bee? Why is the girl in the spelling bee at all when she clearly can’t spell? How does fighting bee zombies somehow teach Miles and Kelvin to be better friends? Why don’t Miles and Kelvin have separate personalities? Why don’t Miles and Kelvin have personalities at all? Why isn’t this a show about one girl who isn’t as good at science but is good at lots of other things, and one boy who is good at science, and they complement each other? Or vice-versa? Why did they make a show that’s Phineas and Ferb but terrible? Who green-lit this monstrosity?


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I still think grading shows is silly, so here are the two and a half Amazon kids’ pilots I watched, in descending order of how much I would like them to be picked up.


1. Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street

2. Maker Shack Agency

3. Amazon decides TV shows are too hard to make and shuts down all its original programming.

4. The government outlaws all TV, and I am arrested for illegally watching The West Wing.

5. Spiders. Spiders everywhere.

6. Hardboiled Eggheads


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 Okay. That’s done, then. Suggestions for how I can further ruin my sister’s life by putting off live-blogging Pretty Little Liars will be taken in the comments.