Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Alison Willmore
February 7, 2014 1:44 PM
11 Comments
  • |

Which Amazon Pilots Are Worth Your Time? We Review and Rank the Site's Newest Would-Be Original Series

Gael García Bernal in 'Mozart in the Jungle' Amazon

Yesterday, Amazon Studios unveiled its second round of original pilots, among them its first two dramas and a pair of indie film-tinged comedies along with a more straightforward one. As with the first round of pilots (which yielded series orders for "Alpha House" and "Betas"), these episodes have been placed online for free, with Amazon collecting data and feedback from viewers to help determine which will get greenlit -- meaning that if you like something, speaking up about it could potentially help it get made.

Some of the pilots I really enjoyed, and some not so much. This round was notably Los Angeles-centric, full of glassy houses perched up in the hills or along the water -- from a football player's over-the-top bachelor pad in "The Rebels" to the family home the father in "Transparent" wants to let go to the Bel Air mansion in which the group in "The After" holes up. Only "Mozart in the Jungle" is set elsewhere -- in New York (sorry, rest of the country). Below are thoughts on the pilots, ranked from best to worst. I haven't seen the children's show pilots yet, but you can find them here: "Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street," "Hardboiled Eggheads," "The Jo B. & G. Raff Show," "Maker Shack Agency" and "Wishenpoof!"

'Transparent'

Transparent

Easily the best of the five grown-up pilots released, this pilot written and directed by "Afternoon Delight" filmmaker Jill Soloway buries the premise that turns its title into a pun -- that the father of three adult children, played by Jeffrey Tambor, has been transitioning to female, and has been battling to share the news. But by the time that revelation arrives, the pilot has already done enough to hook you in introducing its neurotic, messy trio of siblings -- Gaby Hoffmann as Ali, the unemployed sister tossing around ideas about writing Urban Outfitters-ready novelty books, Amy Landecker as Sarah, the uptight, upscale housewife reconnecting with her (lesbian) ex and Jay Duplass in a rare acting role as Joshua, the brother who signs bands and sleeps with their prettier members. "Transparent" feels excitingly like an indie movie rather than being easily comparable to anything you'd see on television, and its characters are filled out in funny, biting scenes that don't let them off the hook but also avoid making them monstrous. Tambor's character bemoans his offspring's selfishness, but it's a very believable and understandable sort of self-obsession, like being in the company of their family members makes them revert to their younger selves and amplifies the qualities that have left them all at different loose ends. Adding that to Tambor's measured, sympathetic take on a character in the midst of a challenging process of change, and "Transparent" is the pilot I'd most want to see made into a series.

Mozart in the Jungle

Written by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Alex Timbers, this comedy has a sensibility somewhere between a network sitcom and the quirkier realm of  a "Bored to Death," except it's set in the world of classical musicians. It's off-kilter and seemingly impossibly niche as potential series go, but the pilot (directed by Paul Weitz of "About a Boy") depicts a likable combination of the high and low, of characters who aspire to art but meanwhile get high off joints attached to metronomes and have to scrape together a living by instructing Upper East Side kids or double booking an evening to accompany "Oedipus Rocks," a Styx jukebox musical. (The glimpse of Oedipus gouging out his eyes to "Come Sail Away" was alone enough to sell me on the potential of this one.) The "Mozart in the Jungle" pilot hasn't quite calibrated the balance between it stylized moments and more realistic ones -- the outsized Gael García Bernal as Rodrigo, the eccentric boy genius hired as the symphony's new conductor, doesn't quite jive with Lola Kirke's far more naturalistic oboist Hailey -- but this project feels like it'd only get stranger if it made it to series, and it's the strange and more whimsical moments in the pilot that work best. 

'Bosch'

Bosch

I've never read Michael Connelly's novels about Detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch, so I can't speak to how close an adaptation this drama pilot, written by "Treme" co-creator Eric Overmyer and directed by Jim McKay, really is. What works about this episode is its romantic, noirish treatment of Los Angeles, which looms larger than life in the background of the opening scene -- it recalls Michael Mann's depiction of the city in "Collateral," down to a coyote sighting. It's nice to see frequent Hey, It's That Guy Titus Welliver in a starring turn, though he's not given all that much to work with -- "Bosch" is subdued to a fault, and its title character plays his cards close to his chest, even when it comes to the wrongful death trial he's caught up in. The cases introduced in the episode are treated in a similarly unsensationalized manner -- one Bosch looks over and deems a suicide, while another is just getting started when the credits roll. As pilots go, it has a perhaps problematic lack of urgency, but I enjoyed the atmosphere, with Bosch coming across as a throwback hero without being overly anachronistic. He smokes, he listens to jazz, he takes a girl out for drinks at Musso and Frank and he gets in a few good, dry lines. "I thought you had an arrangement," his partner ("Wire" alum Jamie Hector) notes of the arrival of Bosch's ex. "She traded up," Bosch shrugs. He's no Philip Marlowe, but he's and the show are different enough from the average cop on TV to be interesting.

The After

"X-Files" creator Chris Carter hasn't had a new series for over a decade, and as a former devotee of the adventures of Mulder and Scully this was the pilot I was most interested in seeing. Written and directed by Carter, "The After" follows a group of seemingly random strangers who get stuck in a parking garage together and emerge to find the world apparently falling apart, though no one can explain what's going on other than that there's mass panic, cell phones are down, the power's out, the water's not working. The episode is scattered with details that suggest something more mysterious is at work -- the characters all turn out to have the same birthday, they're missing time and a tattoo from one is found on an ominous, red-eyed creature in the woods -- but mostly it feels like a tone deaf mashup of most recent conspiracy- and apocalypse-based genre franchises. The characters are one-note cliches, and they act in ways that are confoundingly dumb, like designated trampy girl Tammy (Arielle Kebbel) deciding to go skinny dipping in front of strangers, one an escaped convict, as civilization crumbles, or the actress Gigi (Louise Monot) watching videos of the daughter she longs to get back to on her cell until the battery dies, at which point she pounds it and says she can't believe it, like she doesn't understand how phones work. The characters are so clumsily drawn that I hoped it was deliberate, that some kind of high-concept twist was coming to reveal they were all fragments of the same person or something similar, but there's nothing (save the birthdays) to suggest that in this frustrating pilot. We've already got "The Walking Dead," do we really need another series about unpleasant people bickering while the world ends?

'The Rebels'

The Rebels

This comedy from Jeremy Garelick ("The Break-Up") and Jon Weinbach ("The Other Dream Team") and directed by Broken Lizard's Jay Chandrasekhar aspires to be a "Major League" for football, except with the Margaret Whitton-equivalent -- the beautiful widow who inherits a team she knows nothing about -- somehow now the heroine instead of the villain. I like Natalie Zea a lot, and it's nice to see her in a lead role after a run of ex-wives of the protagonist parts, but she's making the best of a mess of a character here. Her Julie Levine has so little interest in her late husband's team that she can't make it to meetings with owners on time, calls their uniforms "costumes" (despite supposedly having been a cheerleader who'd know better) and promotes her husband's assistant the team's general manager. And suddenly she's supposed to turn around and decide to keep the team because otherwise her son would be sad? Josh Peck also looks lost in the role of said new GM Danny Norwood, and not by design but by Danny having no distinguishing characteristics. A gag involving a monkey at a party is cute, but this feels like a retread of a outcasts-band-together-to-win sports story in which everyone seems like they'd be so much better off cashing out and heading elsewhere.

You might also like:

11 Comments

  • Becky Edmondson | February 26, 2014 8:48 PMReply

    Tried a few minutes of 'Mozart in the Jungle'. I was very hopeful. Then, as with the others, the filthy language. I'm through.

  • John | February 11, 2014 8:47 PMReply

    I'm going to go in the opposite direction on this one; Bosch, Rebels, and The After show the most promise.
    While I agree all three could have been scripted tighter, to me, they hold the greatest scope for development.
    Bosch can really go in a number of interesting directions and sub-plots, it has the potential for tremendous depth, both in character and story development. From cults to corruption, it can really ramp up the suspense.
    The Raiders had me laughing, the ending was priceless. It's a difficult formula, but if they manage to jump from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other in every episode, maintain a tight story line, I think they can do a great job. Comedy, folks, is really hard to produce, but I think they are off to a good start.
    The After, to be honest, is my fav. I agree that the pilot needed to be much tighter. The story tended to weave too much at times, and Carter failed to develop the main characters quickly enough. I couldn't identify with the French actress right from the beginning...and it is a missing key ingredient that has put a lot of people off. But this show has the scope to combine the best of Lost and X-Files and turn into a real cliffhanger. Is it post-apocalyptic, end of days, or did they die and are fumbling around in purgatory? Carter can fix up the gaps in the pilot with flashbacks and character development, but The After has the potential to be a really great series if give the chance

  • matt | February 9, 2014 1:32 PMReply

    wish you hadn't revealed the main twist in Transparent - or at least given us a spoiler alert after telling us t hat it was the best pilot. Had just read a review on another website that said 'i won't ruin the twist for you - Wish I could've watched it and have been surprised. You cant read anything online these days. Maybe have a brief summary on top that ranks them in order or just says worth watching, so so, don't waste your time..and then have more detailed synopses.a

  • Kelly | February 9, 2014 9:08 AMReply

    Bosch rocks! I'm happy that Michael Connelly is hands-on involved writing this first teleplay at least. Hope he does the others as well. I've been waiting for his books to get their own show. Casting looks good, like Titus Welliver from The Good Wife and many other places, and the actor that played Brules in Fringe.

    On the other hand the Mozart fiasco with my hero Gael and Malcolm McDowell really blows, took it off in five minutes, what a bummer!

  • JohnMaz | February 8, 2014 11:28 PMReply

    Transparent was so boring. The Rebels had me peeing in my pants.

  • Lotus_j | February 8, 2014 9:23 PMReply

    It's interesting how popular Transparent seems to be with journalists, and how unpopular with Amazon viewers (it's easily the least watched, and poorest reviewed of the shows). I watched Transparent and was bored in 5 minutes and wanted to tear my eyeballs out.

    I can see the show runner pitching TV Shows "It's about a family that is depressed and dark and goes through all the normal problems family has EXCEPT one of the parents is a ____!"

    Where she throws out "multiple personality disorder," "Trans-gender," "Gay Priest," "Hitman," "Black Gay Republican Politician..."

    How does she keep getting pilots? Transparent was just .... bad.

    Bosch is easily the fan favorite in views and score. That show is great. It's obvious there is a lot more to Bosch than the 50 minutes let us see.

    The After was "ok" but I sure hope Chris Carter knows where it's supposed to go. That's the problem with so many of these shows. They don't know. So all these people have the same birthday. They creepy creature at the end... IF Carter knows where it's going I'm sure that show has a lot planned to give it depth. The 50 minute pilot just appeared to be cliched character after cliched character. I'm certain depth would be provided.

    The Mozart show was good, but it just appeared to be trying way too hard to make classical music sexy. That's just too small a demographic to go after.

    The Rebels was cliche after cliche but still entertaining. Plus the FOX Football guys all on the show giving commentary? That COULD go somewhere. So it has potential and is for football people, and that is a good sized demographic, plus it's directly aimed at the 18-34 male. That show just seems smart. A modern 1st and 10 for a new group of people.

    I can see them green lighting Bosch rather quickly (over 2400 reviews, average of 4.8/5) and The After (over 1600 reviews, 4.0/5). The comedies have all be poorly received in reviews. The Rebels is the most reviewed (Just over 600 reviews, 4.4/5). While the worst, Transparent, hasn't even hit 500 reviews yet.

    Perhaps they should ignore the comedies entirely since they don't appear to have been received well.

  • jamie | February 9, 2014 1:35 PM

    Amazon has a lot of middle of the road, conservative customers who are uneducated about these issues and dare i say prejudiced (not saying you are)…Also its not a chuckle laugh track. Its an adult show about adult issues - and I don't just mean the transgender part. The kids 'issues', relationships with themselves and their parents will no doubt be explored further. I hope Amazon picks it up because its a timely series, adult television and the type of show broadcast networks are too afraid of.

  • dreamlife613 | February 8, 2014 11:04 AMReply

    I couldn't agree with you more on your rankings. My favorites were Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle; I hope both get picked up to series.

    Bosch was decent and I probably would keep watching it.

    The After and The Rebels were both terrible.

  • Mike | February 8, 2014 8:10 AMReply

    Yeah, "The After" is garbage. If you're going to do another show where a ragtag group of random people are forced to band together to confront a world full of dangerous creatures and/or the apocalypse...why would you go about it in such a boring cliched way?

    Aside from the brief nudity and the supposedly-edgy profanity dusting, it's indistinguishable from the most mediocre of the offerings on network tv and basic cable. A waste of expectations.

  • Liam Brennan | February 7, 2014 1:53 PMReply

    Completely agree on "The After." So frustrating for all the reasons the author points out. Part of me is still trying to believe the characters are MEANT to be that one dimensional...but that's a pretty big risk to take in an Amazon Pilot when there's no certainty of ever getting to reveal that twist.

  • Drifter | February 10, 2014 3:00 AM

    The reason they are one dimensional is because each character represents one of the 7 deadly sins. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_deadly_sins

    just my guess.