Amazon’s latest pilot season is upon us, and that means it’s time for armchair TV critics to make their voices heard and shape another season of Amazon’s original video programming. This latest edition comes off the heels of two Golden Globe wins for Amazon’s show “Transparent,” and contains a new set of dramas, comedies, and one interesting variety show for people to check out. Once people are done watching, they can vote on which pilots they want to see picked up for a full season.
Like past pilot seasons before it, this one is a mixed bag – some of the shows are good, some of them aren’t, and there’s one that’s downright ugly. Here’s the run-down:
If you’ve seen one prodigal son story, you’ve seen them all, and “Cocked” is another prodigal son story. This time, Richard Paxson, played by Sam Trammell, returns to his conservative colorado family to try and save his father’s gun manufacturing business. Of course, he also has to contend with his crotchety dad, his underappreciated half-sister who was born out of his father’s affair, and his brother, a former tormentor who’s also a cocaine addict and sex fiend.
After his uncle’s company manages to steal the designs for his family’s new semiautomatic revolver, Richard has an idea to boost the company’s sales by marketing to the LGBT community. Things go fairly predictably from there – it’s a bit like “Kinky Boots” but for the Guns & Ammo set.
Overall, “Cocked” feels like the sort of show that knows it’s playing to type, but really doesn’t care. It’s nothing innovative, but it’s reasonably well-crafted (if a bit vulgar). Amazon can’t have a full catalog of high-profile home runs, and “Cocked” seems like a decently-executed show that can fill out the company’s streaming catalog without being an embarrassment.
There wasn’t much for me to find funny in “Down Dog,” Amazon’s first comedy offering for this season. It focuses on a laid-back dude who has never needed to take any commitment seriously in his life, but is then forced to take over a yoga studio from his ex-girlfriend.
If there was one word I could use to describe “Down Dog,” it’s “fine.” It’s not aggressively unwatchable, but there’s nothing about it that I found particularly enjoyable, either. The characters are all essentially playing to type, with lusty Yoga students, laid back stoners, high-strung office managers, and more characters from central casting. If you feel like turning your brain off for half an hour, it’s pretty good at just being background radiation, though.
Four friends meet their estranged buddy at his massive new villa in Belize, but everything is not as it seems. The big business deal that gave him the sort of money he needed to buy a massive beachfront villa also got him involved in some Seriously Bad Business that his friends have to unravel. It’s based on a Sky1 show of the same name – for those people who happen to have seen it. (I haven’t, so I have no idea how this compares to the original.)
“Mad Dogs” is a show that tries to throw curveball after curveball, and occasionally manages to hit its target. Some of the events of the show managed to surprise me, which is more than I can say for some of the other pilots from this latest go-round. That said, it just falls short of being truly interesting. The path of a group of middle-aged men trying to reclaim their senses of adventure is well-trod at this point, even if the precise events of “Mad Dogs” are more than standard fare. I won’t be surprised if it gets a full season pickup, but I don’t expect anything great out of it.
Point of Honor
“Point of Honor” is a new Civil War drama that focuses on a family of wealthy Virginians who free their slaves but continue to fight on the side of the Confederacy. Out of all the shows in this latest season, it was the hardest to review, since it seems to have two completely different sides to it. In terms of its raw, technical execution, “Point of Honor” is a marvel. The cinematography is really well done, and the battle scenes have a particular dramatic energy to them that works incredibly well. But then the story starts happening, and everything goes awry.
This is a show that really wants to handwave away the nasty business of its main characters owning slaves so that it can get down to focusing on other things. As a writer, I understand that impulse, but it’s misplaced. Turning the Civil War into a states’ rights conflict misses the fact that the war was about slavery. Though “Point” doesn’t shy away from portraying slaves and slavery, it always feels cursory.
It doesn’t help matters that the dialogue veers toward melodrama, the characters are flat, and their actions are predictable. This is a show that manages to be very dramatic without being very interesting or particularly inventive, and that’s its undoing.
Salem Rogers, Model of the Year 1998
If there’s one constant in Amazon’s pilot seasons, it’s that the company always manages to put out one disgustingly vulgar, cringe-worthy mess every time around. This season’s entry is “Salem Rogers, Model of the Year 1998,” a show about two women who each want to use the other as a stepping-stone to further their careers.
One is a demanding and wacky former supermodel who just got kicked out of rehab after a decade, while the other is her former assistant who has made a career out of writing self-help books based on the abuse she suffered at the other’s hand. The concept gives “Salem” a chance to be nuanced and interesting, but the show is perfectly happy to settle for jokes about sex and drug use.
I didn’t like “Down Dog,” either, but it was at least watchable. “Salem Rogers” is a train wreck, and not in a good way.
The Man in the High Castle
Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, “The Man in the High Castle” starts with a basic premise: what would happen if the Axis won World War II, and split the U.S. between Nazi Germany and Japan? The show follows an ensemble cast of characters from government officials to resistance members on both coasts as each tries to navigate the alternate-reality 1960s in which they live.
It’s a good show, with a solid cast of characters who manage to hold up a convoluted and multi-threaded plot. Many of the Nazi characters veer a bit too close towards Snidely Whiplash-esque mustache twirling and supervillainy, but that’s largely expectable, and somewhat forgivable. At its core, This is a really good drama, and the best show out of this crop of pilots. If Amazon released more episodes of this tomorrow, I’d binge-watch them.
The New Yorker Presents
This is perhaps the most odd-ball offering out of all Amazon’s pilots. Not because of the content, but because “The New Yorker Presents” isn’t really a singular show at all – it’s a mix of shorter pieces including a short film, an interview and a documentary, all tied together with quick drawings of the magazine’s famous cartoons.
All of the content is good (as you’d expect from the show’s pedigree) but I’m not sure how well the show will fare overall. People who like The New Yorker will almost certainly find something to like in this collection of vignettes, but I don’t know if that’s enough to keep the show going past its pilot.
Still, if there’s one medium that can support a show with a format that’s essentially a smorgasbord of interesting and intelligent content, it’s online video. If this does get a full pick-up, I’d expect it to be the online equivalent of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”: the sort of show everyone will be happy to say they watched, while not actually seeing any of it.
So, there you have it: my take on the pilots Amazon has up this time around. What did you think? Did I get a show completely wrong? Sound off in the comments.