Back to IndieWire

Review: Amazon’s Fall 2015 Pilots Ranked From Worst to Best — Westerns to Feminists to Tig Notaro

Review: Amazon's Fall 2015 Pilots Ranked From Worst to Best — Westerns to Feminists to Tig Notaro

“Edge”

Remember those kids on the playground who would run around challenging you to push-up contests or arm-wrestling matches? Or the high school boys who would push or punch for fun, finding any excuse to show off their strength? When it came down to it, these were the kids who could dish it out but couldn’t take it. They were all show and no backbone. Despite going to great lengths to prove just how tough Josiah “Edge” Hedges can be, this pilot feels more like those kids: a faker. 

If treated as parody, “Edge” might almost work. But it’s so deeply invested in its hard-edged premise about a brother in 1868 out for revenge, Shane Black — the director and co-writer — seems to be operating with blinders on, unable to identify the most laughable moments of his predictable tale. A cartoonish villain, nonsensical plotting and strong undercurrents of racism (the only person of color on the show is a dumb, black man used solely for comedic effect) and sexism (all women are prostitutes) make “Edge” soft in all the wrong places — which reminds me, did I mention its terrible puns?

Grade: D-

READ MORE: Louis CK, Tig Notaro and Shane Black Highlight Amazon’s 2015 Pilot Season

“Z: The Beginning of Everything”

Directed by Tim Blake Nelson, the story of young Zelda Sayre (soon to be the famously hard-drinking, hard-living wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald) features some solid production value and the always exciting Christina Ricci in the lead role. How Ricci is still capable of playing a convincing teenager is a mystery for the ages, but she does quite a bit with what’s a relatively underwritten take on one of the Jazz Age’s more complicated figures. 
There’s a lack of spark here, is the problem, and more importantly there’s no real sense of a story engine that — should the pilot move onto becoming a series — would create any sort of momentum (which is a bit of a shame, because it’s actually an intriguing idea). There have been plenty of miniseries to take on real people and historical events, but theoretically this would be an ongoing, multi-season show serving as basically a biopic, which is relatively rare. Telling a finite story in a serialized context is a challenge that Amazon might be up to, but while Nelson’s direction seems more than capable of handling Zelda’s melancholy, the show doesn’t really capture her joie de vivre beyond the surface level. And without that, any portrait of Zelda feels incomplete. 

Grade: B-

READ MORE: For Your Consideration: The 50 Most Despicable Oscar Snubs of the 2000s

“Patriot”

Points for quirk go to “Patriot,” an hour-long spy drama I’m unable to make heads or tails of after spending an hour within its unique perspective. Focusing on John Tavner, a new employee to a Midwestern industrial piping firm, “Patriot” aims to tell the complicated story of NOC officers — standing for Non-Official Cover — who take private jobs and use their resources for governmental decree. Because they’re operating off-book, their jobs carry a hefty amount of risk, and thus put a lot of stress on the agents.

John, played by Michael Dorman, copes with his stress by getting high and singing folk songs about his undercover operations, often in public venues. His father (Terry O’Quinn of “Lost” fame), who’s also his assigning officer, knows his son is a bit off, but trusts him anyway — especially with his brother, a Congressman, watching his six. “Patriot” may sound like a twisted CBS procedural, and it could definitely go that route. But the sincerity of these spies is striking, as well as the oddball antics of their best agent. It’s enough to want to learn more, if not sign up for every mission.

Grade: B-

READ MORE: ‘Limitless’ the TV Show Might Be a CBS Procedural, But It’s Weird and Smart and Fun

“Highston”

The concept is simple: Young Highston (Lewis Pullman) thinks he’s talking to famous people who are, without a doubt, figments of his imagination — but they’re very real to him. His loving parents (the always delightful Chris Parnell and Mary Lynn Rajskub) want the best for him, but also don’t know how to cope with his claims that Flea and Dr. Shaquille O’Neal (playing themselves) are right there in the room, offering advice and guidance. Psychiatric evaluation is the best solution they have, but it might not be what Highston really needs. 
It’s a fun premise clearly set up to incorporate a wide array of potential guest stars — not that it’s likely we’ll see Meryl Streep and Stephen Hawking (mentioned as other celebrities who have come to visit Highston in the past) anytime soon. Whoever might stop by, the way that Highston’s figments insert themselves into his life is well-defined by writer Bob Nelson’s beautifully specific script. This also might have been one of the best-directed pilots of this round, which makes sense given that Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (of “Little Miss Sunshine” glory) have a talent for striking the right balance between quirk and tragic. The only catch is that the pilot, as charming as it is, doesn’t necessarily have much forward momentum. How the arc of the first season might develop feels like a bit of a mystery, and not in a good way. 

Grade: B+

READ MORE: Joke or Truth? The Cast of ‘Archer’ Spills Secrets and Lies on Season 6

“Good Girls Revolt”

With a strong ensemble cast including Anna Camp, Jim Belushi, Grace Gummer, Chris Diamantopoulos and relatively unknown Genevieve Angelson, this story about the women and men working for a weekly New York magazine aims directly at the rise of the woman’s movement in 1969. 
Like so many other shows to tackle the 1960s and ’70s, the biggest thing working against “Good Girls Revolt” is that “Mad Men” exists; the poetry that the legendary AMC series brought to depicting this time period makes it nearly impossible to avoid comparisons. But while the show could have utilized more subtlety in depicting the injustices women experienced in that era, “Good Girls Revolt” has a lot of gumption and its own unique spin on the time period, which could easily make for addictive viewing. Angelson is the breakout star of the piece, as an ambitious “researcher” who just wants to be acknowledged for what she’s actually doing — journalism — and Gummer’s calm and confident take on Nora Ephron (“I don’t joke about writing or cooking,” the iconic writer quips at one point) is a highlight that hopefully gets seen again, should the show go to series. Maybe it’s not “Mad Men,” but it could very much become its own thing. 

Grade: A-

READ MORE: Why ‘Mad Men’ Needed a Happy Ending

“One Mississippi”

The influences of “Louie” are starting to pop up more and more, as comedians are given the freedom to create whatever shows they want, rather than be boxed into predetermined slots on a network. C.K. struck gold when FX agreed to step back and let the artist do his thing with minimal interference. Many other networks are trying the same strategy, with mostly positive results. While fans can literally see the similarities in shows like Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” and the upcoming “Baskets” starring Zach Galifianakis (and co-created by Louis C.K.), Tig Notaro’s first TV series, “One Mississippi,” almost tricks you into expecting it to be more like her executive producer’s FX series.

Opening with a story read by Notaro over the radio, the dark comedy shifts, post-credits, into a traveling montage before introducing its characters. Soon after they show up, the care, time and energy put into each interaction makes even the smallest moments compelling among the big, life-changing events taking place around them. In short, “One Mississippi” finds its own voice quickly, and Notaro’s monotone whisper becomes a moving, heartfelt melody you don’t want to stop. Spurred along by compelling supporting players, this is the one pilot with top tier potential. Don’t miss out.

Grade: A-

All of Amazon’s Fall 2015 pilots can be watched now on Amazon Prime

READ MORE: 6 New Netflix Shows to Binge Watch in November 2015 (And the Best Episodes of Each)

This Article is related to: Television and tagged , , , , , ,