When it comes to producing original content, Amazon Instant Video is wasting no time making sure there is a surplus of programming to help catapult it into the ranks of Netflix and Hulu. Amazon’s last “pilot season” was only back in February, and the four shows that were picked up have yet to be seen (although Transparent just got a September 26 premiere date). Nevertheless, on Thursday the site will release five more pilots to the public for viewers to watch and rate — the ratings will help determine which shows Amazon will pick up. The new pilots feature dramas and comedies with a wide array of premises. None are immediately gripping but a few are worth your time. Here, we rank the five from best to worst.
Red Oaks (comedy)
Out of the three comedy pilots this season, Red Oaks is the best. It is a blend of familiar territory: a coming-of-age story, an ’80s period piece, a summer comedy set at a suburban job, a reflection on a parent’s health scare, etc. Yet it does a fine job of bringing together these elements to craft something sweet and funny. David Myers (Craig Roberts) is trying to figure out what to do with his life — his father wants him to be an accountant, but David’s more interested in something creative, it seems — while spending his last summer before college working at a country club.
The club members are predictably rich and obnoxious and the club employees are predictably teen stoners, but the archetypes feel somewhat fresh in the capable hands of Gregory Jacobs and Joe Gangemi. (It also helps that David Gordon Green directs the pilot). It’s the most broad and accessible of the five new Amazon pilots but, unlike last season’s The Rebels, this actually works for the show instead of against it.
With Jay Chandrasekhar at the helm and a solid cast that includes Sarah Chalke, Selma Blair, and Lindsay Sloane, Really should be the Amazon newcomer to watch. But this is an iffy pilot, at best.
The show’s about marriage and adult friendship, two themes that have been done to death (most recently in FX’s darkly funny Married), and the bonds that tie these different relationships together. There are familiar jokes — sex interrupted by children, adults getting too embarrassingly wasted — and long stretches of nothing. During a dinner party scene, it’s hard to tell if the show is accidentally boring or just showing us how utterly boring adults in the suburbs can be. There is a twist at the end designed to pull in viewers, but it isn’t captivating or urgent enough to demand a follow-up. Still, Chandrasekhar’s writing skills, particularly when it comes to dialogue, help to sell the ideas. It’s not as immediately good as Red Oak, but Really has the most promise.
Hand of God (drama)
2014 rule: Every network, even the online streaming sites, must put out at least one prestige drama. Hand of God is Amazon’s. The complicated description combines every hyper-dramatic “golden age” trope that you can think of: “The show centers on the powerful Judge Harris, a hard-living, law-bending married man with a high-end call girl on the side, who suffers a mental breakdown, and goes on a vigilante quest to find the rapist who tore his family apart. With no real evidence to go on, Pernell begins to rely on ‘visions’ and ‘messages’ he believes are being sent by God through Pernell’s ventilator-bound son.” Think they crammed enough in there?
The pilot is solid but it’s also overstuffed and oddly paced at times. There are a handful of really good (and visually cool) moments and the show has, at its core, a thoroughly engaging premise — but it’s hard to shake the desperation. It is desperate to be prestigious and important and golden. It wants you to know that this show deserves recaps and acclaims and Emmys. The show is saying something — but it is not always saying something worth listening to.
Hysteria is Amazon’s creepy horror pilot from Shaun Cassidy. The show concerns a group of girls who all begin to suffer from the same unknown illness, which causes them to have violent spasms. It plays out like a typical second-rate horror film — the spasms first happen at an illicit teen party — but with a 2014 twist: neurologist Logan (Mena Suvari) thinks the illness is linked to social media. As in, the girls begin to spasm when they watch YouTube videos or something. Who knows!
Truth be told, it’s kind of a mess, but it’s a fun mess, especially if you like ridiculous horror tropes. It gets a little bogged down with a subplot involving Logan’s brother on death row and a childhood murder (which I’m sure has to be linked to the present happenings), but the actual mystery at the center is enough to make up for it.
The Cosmopolitans (comedy)
The Cosmopolitans is one of those cases where I can fully understand a show’s appeal, but also understand that it’s not a show for me. The logline itself puts me to sleep: “The Cosmopolitans follows a group of young American expatriates in contemporary Paris searching for love and friendship in a foreign city.” It reminds me of a dull, unimagined student film that even adorable Adam Brody can’t save.
The Cosmopolitans is beautiful to look at (both the setting and the actors), and has a nice rhythm and a sweet sense of humor, but I drifted off so much watching it that I had to restart it multiple times. At one point, a character says that it’s hard to resist “a lovely face and a sad story” and that’s true, yes, but I’m more inclined to believe his friend’s claims that these stories can be deceptive. Maybe The Cosmopolitans is a sophisticated romantic-comedy from Whit Stillman or maybe it’s just an empty story with a blanket romantic setting. Time will tell, if it’s even picked up (I’m sure it will be), but I have no interest in finding out.