Amazon declared itself a major player this past weekend, taking home two Golden Globes for “Transparent” — a series ordered up from its successful second pilot season. Now entering its fourth season, the young but powerful streaming network is looking for another “Transparent,” or at least something built to bring in as much attention, awards and accolades as Jill Soloway’s groundbreaking half-hour dramedy. But is there one among the six new scripted contenders in 2015? Take a look at our reviews, and then vote for yourself right here.
“Point of Honor”
A near if not total disaster, “Point of Honor” feels like watching a group of Civil War re-enactors get together and create their own false narrative. While that could be fun in a soapy kind of way, series creators Carlton Cuse (“Lost”) and Randall Wallace (“Pearl Harbor”) treat their material straight, asking audiences to take it very, very seriously. Occasional instances of gore break up an otherwise polite rhythm, as does the complete disregard for time period-appropriate dialogue. It’s as if Cuse and Wallace took no time crafting their script to have a language of its own, whether it be historically accurate or purposefully modernized. The cheap familial drama established as the series’ throughline is laughably bad, as are most of the actors, all of whom go unaided by a director who I would have bet wasn’t even there, had this not been made with union standards. While normally I would root for everyone to enjoy their time spent watching whatever TV they so choose, I beg of you not to vote for this preposterous exercise to continue. Just go watch the real re-enactors — at least they seem to care.
“Mad Dogs” is anything but subtle. Kicking off with a flash forward to some terrifying character transformations and closing with the above-pictured cat-masked gunman, the thriller with a heavy dose of horror sports one of the best casts of this year’s pilot season. Steve Zahn (“Joy Ride”), Romany Malco (“Weeds”), Michael Imperioli (“The Sopranos”), Ben Chaplin (“The Thin Red Line”) and Billy Zane (Billy Freaking Zane!) star in the remake of a UK series by the same name. Only Chaplin returns from the original cast, and yet somehow he’s still the worst of the bunch, jumping around wildly from stalwart protagonist to nervous wreck to mute. The rest do a fine job, with Zane standing out as a perfectly-cast smug son of a bitch, but very little about the proceedings feels the slightest bit authentic or even surprising. A few moments are undeniably unnerving, but I doubt they’ll be enough to attract even fans of the “vacation gone wrong” horror genre. Still…that cat mask…wow.
“Salem Rogers: Model of the Year 1998”
Here’s a pretty good litmus test for whether or not you’ll enjoy “Salem Rogers”: Did “Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23” infuriate or delight you? If the latter was the case, then you should consider yourself in luck — created by Lindsey Stoddart, this pilot is very much in line with that show’s particular talent for pairing the deliberately likable and unlikable. (If you never watched “Don’t Trust the B” — dude, get on that.)
Tracking the post-rehab adventures of a one-time supermodel deluded enough to maybe still scrape together something of a career, it’s a series in search of a story worthy of its cast — Leslie Bibb’s shark of a smile proves infectious, Rachel Dratch as her bitch/former assistant/foil is crazy engaging, and appearances by Scott Adsit and Jane Kaczmarek are more than welcome. The writing proves to be somewhat clunky when it comes to establishing character and premise, but by stacking the deck with some pretty serious comedic talent, “Salem” inspires legitimate interest in more.
Written by Robin Schiff — best known for penning the Lisa Kudrow cult hit “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” — this half-hour comedy is as sweet, innocent and subtly layered as its main character. Starring Josh Casaubon as the “born-stoned” yoga instructor Logan Wood, the Brad Silberling-directed pilot is an easy-going charmer tracking the slow growth of a man who simply doesn’t know how to do, well, anything. Good-natured and honest to a fault, Logan loves the life he’s fallen into thanks to his good looks, but he’s forced into proving his capabilities by reasonably-intentioned (if slightly harsh) naysayers. With a strong supporting cast that includes the always-welcome Kris Kristofferson, “Down Dog” is a solid opener with plenty of flexibility for the future — and could turn into a much more watchable critique of millennial malaise than, say, “Girls.”
The first impression one might have of this pilot written by Samuel Baum and Sam Shaw, which focuses on a family devoted to its gun company business, is an opportunity for some cheap cracks at the people who love guns maybe just a little too much. But “Cocked” avoids a lot of that, instead creating a screwed-up family dynamic on par with greats like “Arrested Development.” While never really digging into the bigger issues of gun culture that the premise might invoke, it’s smarter than redneck jokes, and one running subplot pulls the show in a darker, and more than interesting, direction.
“Cocked” also features maybe one of the strongest casts of this cycle. Brian Dennehy is steady as always, Laura Fraser does a lot with the usually thankless role of the steady wife, Dreama Walker is a fiery internal adversary, Jason Lee brings a lot of “My Name is Earl” slacker fun to the proceedings… Most importantly, Sam Trammell, who was always quite charming on “True Blood,” proves more than capable of the series’ lead role — it makes you wish he hadn’t spent so many years as a secondary character, shape-shifting in vampire-ville. Do we crave further episodes? Not necessarily. But so far, the results are intriguing.
“The Man in the High Castle”
It’s hard to find genres these days that feel fresh, but behold: the “alternate universe period piece.” Set in America in the 1960s — a few decades after Nazi Germany won World War II — “High Castle” has one of of the most exciting premises for a pilot we’ve seen in a long time, and the talent behind the scenes — including Ridley Scott as an executive producer and “X-Files” producer Frank Spotnitz running the show — inspires a lot of good will.
The best news? The pilot actually deserves that good will. Rich with details built off the idea of what it would mean if the U.S. had become German/Japanese property in the 1940s, “High Castle” maybe could stand some deeper character development (always a problem with a show that combines a high-concept premise with a large ensemble cast). But between Alexa Davalos as an aikido-skilled potential freedom fighter, Rupert Evans as her quiet but aspiring artist boyfriend, Luke Kleintank as an errand boy for the resistance and Rufus Sewell as a cold higher-up of the Reich, the potential is huge. There might be almost too much information involved; there are certain scenes you’ll want to rewatch or freeze-frame through, just to get all the details. But damn, do we want to see more of it.
That’s what we think — but what do you think of these pilots? Let us know in the comments!