Amazon released five new pilots on Friday, and it’s up to viewers to determine which ones get picked up. “The Legend of Master Legend,” “Budding Prospects,” “The New V.I.P.’s,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Oasis” make up the 2017 Amazon pilot season. Some are good, some are bad, but the power lies with all of us to determine which are worthy of a full season order. Read our reviews below to get a little insight into each offering, and watch the episodes for yourself right here.
“The Legend of Master Legend”
John Hawkes can’t catch a break. When he nabbed the lead in Charlie Kaufman’s FX pilot — Charlie Kaufman — it didn’t get picked up. He landed an Oscar nomination for “The Sessions,” but his follow-ups have meant diddly-squat comparatively. Sure, he stole a few scenes in “Lincoln” and got to take part in Amy Schumer’s amazing sketch, “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” but he just hasn’t found the next big thing worthy of his talents.
Add “The Legend of Master Legend” to that list. On paper, the pilot looks like a winner: Penned by two “Transparent” writers and directed by James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”), the story of a real-life superhero patrolling the Las Vegas strip is even based on a true story, as uncovered by journalist Joshuah Bearman, whose past articles have been adapted into movies like “Argo” and “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.”
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While it absolutely nails the feeling of spending too many consecutive days in Las Vegas (approximately three, depending on your tolerance for excessive heat and second-hand smoke), that’s not exactly a pleasant world to spend time in, nor are the people populating it. “The Legend of Master Legend” follows Frank Lafount (Hawkes), a father and ex-husband who spends his days training and nights fighting crime. He’s a “homemade superhero” named Master Legend, but the pilot shows him utilizing passive resistance and handing out meals to the homeless more than jumping over rooftops or bashing in baddies.
The problem, however, lies in misplaced pathos. Lafount’s daughter evokes the right emotions, even if we’ve seen this embarrassed daughter story before, and his ex-wife (Dawnn Lewis) is legitimately struggling with her place in life. But Lafount’s friends take up more screen time, and they’re just strange — or possibly villainous, like Shea Whigham’s confounding ex-con, Peanut Head. Meanwhile, Lafount seems perfectly content in his chosen lifestyle. He may want to be closer to his ex-wife and daughter, but he’s living the life he wants and these people who complicate his mission just don’t get it. Maybe we don’t get it either, but there needs to be more empathy or action in this black comedy for it to be worthy of Hawkes’ commitment.
Amazon Studios/John P. Fleenor
Adapted from one of T.C. Boyle’s earliest novels, “Budding Prospects” should have been a good fit for the talents of director Terry Zwigoff, who was responsible for the twisted comedy “Bad Santa.” After all, the trio of Bay Area pals Felix, Phil and Gesh (Adam Rose, Joel David Moore, Will Sasso) look like they could be younger versions of Bill Bob Thornton’s disaffected crook, before he got so embittered and well-preserved by alcohol. Set in 1983, the pilot follows the three friends who decide to take a chance by farming pot in Mendocino in the hopes of bagging a cool half-million tax-free.
Unfortunately, the person you’re supposed to connect to the most — Felix — feels curiously flat. It’s not so much the performance, since Rose gamely plays the sad sack with nothing going for him in his life, but the lack of characterization. While the novel was told from the first person with Felix declaring, “I’ve always been a quitter,” and then listing every moment in life he bailed on, the pilot forgoes the first-person narration and misses out on the beauty of Boyle’s intellectual whimsy contrasted with the earthbound foibles. It’s far easier to get a handle on Phil, a tinkering devil-may-care type, or Gesh, who really just doesn’t give a fuck. In addition, Brett Gelman plays an appropriately creepy character, and Natalie Morales exudes pure allure and energy with what little she’s given in her role as Aorta.
Zwigoff also spends a curious amount of time at the beginning highlighting the cool quirkiness of San Francisco knowing full well that Felix & Co. are destined to leave for the so-called “Summer Camp.” In fact, the pilot is filled with many curious choices — such as a scene we won’t spoil at Gesh’s place done for shock value — that don’t add to the show except to make it more muddled in tone and purpose. While we’d like to think that maybe that meandering feel is the point, instead it just felt disjointed (heh). Just before the pilot ends on a lackluster cliffhanger, it gives us one whiff of hope when the guys share their revealing dreams of what they’d do with the money. We’re not sure if we care enough for Amazon to pick this up, but if it does, we’ll need more of this type of interaction for us to care.
Amazon Studios/Chris Raphael
If you can’t guess the final twist of “Oasis” halfway through this pilot, you haven’t seen enough movies.
Based on the novel “The Book of Strange New Things” by Michel Faber, there’s some impressive attention to detail in the opening minutes, as we find out just how crappy London (and the rest of the world) has become in the year 2032.
However, Peter the pastor (Richard Madden, in his first big TV role since meeting a grisly end on “Game of Thrones”) isn’t interested in escaping this miserable planet for a potentially better one, until billionaire David Morgan (Jonjo O’Neill) couples an irresistible offer with a desperate plea. Something weird seems to be going on in the colony of Oasis, and Morgan thinks bringing a man of faith to the settlement on a new world is the solution.
Something weird is going on, but if you’ve ever seen “Event Horizon” or “Solaris,” it’ll feel very, very familiar. And unfortunately, that undercuts what could have otherwise been a compelling sci-fi drama. Why bother with crazy hallucinations when a grounded take on a struggling space colony would prove just as fascinating?
There’s not a lot of artistic flair to Kevin MacDonald’s direction, but he tells the story cleanly enough and there are some fun quirks to the execution (including way more Patsy Cline ). And the diverse ensemble living in Oasis features some standouts, including Mark Addy, Haley Joel Osment, Michael James Shaw, and Anil Kapoor, memorably flamboyant in “Slumdog Millionaire” but taking a more reserved tone for the role of the station commander.
If “Oasis” does go on to series, it’s poised to dig into how a story of faith in a sci-fi context might work. But given the way focus is pulled away from that in this first hour, we’re not optimistic.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”
Amazon Studios/Sarah Shatz
If you’ve been waiting for Rachel Brosnahan to snag her next great role since the skilled young actress left “House of Cards,” then you’re in luck. If you’ve been waiting for the second coming of “Gilmore Girls,” then, well, we’re still not sure. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” stars Brosnahan as the titular marvel, showcasing the passion and precision in her craft, and while precision is a bit of a problem for writer and director Amy Sherman-Palladino, of “Gilmore Girls” fame, the passion unveiled in the final scenes of this hour-long pilot nearly make up for the exhausting sections preceding them.
Structured as a joke with the longest stretch between set-up and punchline in the history of televised humor, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” opens with Miriam “Midge” Maisel’s wedding. Midge gives a speech to celebrate her day, listing off all the reasons she’s not lucky, but skilled at cultivating the perfect life. She’s been planning everything down to a “T” since she was 12 years old, and it’s this Type-A organization that Midge credits for her happiness. Planning, planning, and more planning have made her what she is today, and it will make her a great wife and mother in the future.
Cut to four years later and, like Chekhov’s gun, you know something or someone will show up soon enough to throw her life into chaos. But the wait for that to happen is accompanied by redundancy after redundancy. What many writers would’ve boiled down into a montage, Sherman-Palladino devotes an entire episode to — which, given her informal approach to act breaks and episode arcs in “Gilmore Girls,” shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise to fans. But the simple pleasures populating Stars Hollow are absent here until the final scenes: The dialogue is broken down and broken up; as restricted as Midge is until both are freed later on. The characters don’t gel because it’s largely unclear who’s sticking around, other than the star, and the pilot doesn’t pick up until the metaphorical gun goes off.
But when it does, wow, what a bang. With the exposition out of the way, “Mrs. Maisel” finally shows off what it wants to become, and it’s largely worth the wait. More than anything else separating “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” from the glorious “Gilmore Girls” is the new series’ in-your-face feminism. Always celebrated by Lorelai and Rory, this ’50s-set story takes on women’s rights with the vigor of Paris working on a school project, allowing a stale, predictable story to suddenly feel fresh and relevant. Without spoiling anything, the episode’s ending shows off exactly what’s changed for Sherman-Palladino since she last branched away from broadcast: She’s got a stronger voice and less restrictions.
Those qualities should serve the series well, even if they impeded most of the pilot. And we can’t wait for more Brosnahan. Pick it up, Amazon!
“The New V.I.P.’s”
Amazon scores with its first foray into adult animation thanks to creator Steve Dildarian, who also brought us the cult hit “The Life and Times of Tim,” which gives you an idea of the crude but energetic animation style found here. The pilot gets down to dirty business in its first minute, when we hear the word “dong” and then get to see a primitive rendering of said dong. But that’s not the end of the parade of penises. Oh no, not by a long shot. We lost count, but the pilot is lousy with phalluses that you can observe, hear about and even see interacting with other characters. And not all of them in the context of sex acts. You’ve been warned/promised.
Once it’s been established that hung humor is on the menu, “The New V.I.P.’s” gets down to the business of its bigger subversive story: lowly employees at a horrible corporation accidentally kill the CEO, mask his death in an ingeniously convoluted scheme and then run the company themselves. A voice cast that includes Matt Braunger as the cover-up mastermind Bud, Ben Schwartz, Missi Pyle, Kerri Kenney, Creed Bratton, Jonathan Adams and Patricia Belcher, among others, give their appalling characters deliciously detestable quirks that you’d recognize to a lesser extent in your co-workers.
The devilish humor is in the details, and giving a rundown of the rapid-fire quips would not do them justice. That includes the joke-a-second dialogue, the bizarre pop culture references and the multitude of visual gags in the background, all of which run the gamut from low-level tasteless and weird to outrageous and clearly offensive… if it weren’t so damn hilarious. We dare you to watch without making some noise, whether it’s laughter or sounds of discomfort. We can’t see why “The New V.I.P.’s “ wouldn’t be picked up to series. It’s the workplace comedy we need now to deal with our real-life frustrations with office politics and straightforward politics politics. Come for the dick jokes, but stay for the escapism.