Amazon Studios has been going full throttle when it comes to releasing new and intriguing pilots every few months. Last year’s crop of pilots brought us one of the best new shows of 2014, with Jill Soloway’s Transparent, as well as the truly original and idiosyncratic comedy Mozart in the Jungle. To kick off 2015, Amazon has uploaded a whole new batch of pilots for viewers to watch and review. Unfortunately, most of them are strictly average — and a few are just plain terrible. Here are all of the comedies and dramas, ranked from worst to best.
Point of Honor (Drama)
I wish I could say that the only thing that Carlton Cuse’s Point of Honor has going for it are some pretty visuals, but the low budget makes it even an aesthetic failure. Everything else about it is at best boring and at worst offensive. It takes place at the beginning of the Civil War — though there are plenty of historical inaccuracies — and centers on a Virginia family whose son, John Rhodes (Nathan Parsons), decides to free all of his family’s slaves but also fight for the South.
Point of Honor is a Civil War/slavery narrative that puts the slaves second to the white family, placing the importance on the Rhodes family and how slavery affects them. They are sometimes made the victims in the story, such as when the mayor and a group of angry neighbors yell and threaten the three daughters for being sympathetic to the enemies. It’s dramatic and overwrought: the opening title sequence is awful, and the characters say things like, “They write in ink; we write in blood,” and, “Slavery is a stench in the nostrils of God.”
But mostly it’s just daft and cringe-worthy. The most telling scene of the entire hour-long pilot features a group of slaves rejoicing after their white saviors reveal that they’re being granted freedom. They cry and hug and sing “Amazing Grace.” It’s not just a gross cliche; it’s also disgusting absolution, a way to make these suddenly former slave owners (some of whom didn’t want to free the slaves) into something resembling heroes.
Salem Rogers (Comedy)
Salem Rogers, which stars Leslie Bibb and Rachel Dratch, is clearly Amazon’s entry in the “female fuckup” genre of television. It’s their version of Broad City, or even Girls, centered on a narcissistic and impossible to like supermodel named Salem (Bibb), who reenters the real world after a ten-year stint in a rehab center. She is obnoxious, crass, and prone to saying things like, “Don’t you know who I am?” without a hint of irony. Out of rehab, she visits her former assistant Agatha (Dratch, who deserves much, much better than this), who has spent her last few years writing a self-help book loosely based on how terribly Salem bullied her when they worked together.
While I’m always wishing for more woman-centric comedies (Salem Rogers was written by Lindsey Stoddart), this is just so derivative and uninspired. All of the expected beats are there: Salem finds out the modeling world has changed and that she has to start from the bottom, Agatha totally freaks out on Salem right before finding out she has to write a book about her, Salem and Agatha get hammered and vomit on the grass, and so on — all leading to the two becoming friends and working together again. This isn’t anything that we haven’t seen before, and that’s not necessarily the biggest problem. The problem is that we’ve seen it done so much better.
There are only two half-hour sitcoms on Amazon’s slate this particular pilot season, and Down Dog is far better than Salem Rogers, though it still leaves much to be desired. Our protagonist is Logan (Josh Casaubon), a laid-back Californian who was literally born beautiful and stoned and has remained that way for all of his life thus far. We’re supposed to believe that he’s irresistible to all women: He only graduates high school because he fucks his teacher; his yoga student practically begs to give him a blowjob after she’s heartbroken to learn that he has a girlfriend; she later pounces on him in the shower as he’s trying to bathe a dog.
At the center of the show is a man trying to grow up (isn’t it always?) and prove himself capable of something bigger. The catalyst is a break-up with his older girlfriend (Paget Brewster, slumming it a bit) that results in him buying the yoga studio that he works at. It’s a light comedy, one that’s not very clever but fine for background viewing. Logan is an easy protagonist to root for, but Down Dog doesn’t give us any reasons to.
Jason Lee is the winner of every show that he stars in, and Cocked is no exception. He’s always fantastic to watch in these silly, offbeat roles — even if the script isn’t as great as it could be. That’s the deal with Cocked, which is erratic even within the hour-long pilot, and suffers from some poor timing. It’s the story of the Paxson family and their business, Paxson Firearms. The pilot begins with one son, Richard (Sam Trammell), who returns to the business after abandoning his family, fleeing to the big city, and finding himself in trouble. But the real good stuff is the sibling rivalry between Richard and Grady (Lee), as well as the culture shock of Richard’s family entering this rural gun world.
It’s a little strange that Amazon would choose this moment to debut such a trigger-happy pilot, one that makes guns fun and includes scenes of Richard’s young son suddenly becoming obsessed with them, waving them around and even using a “practice” gun that he accidentally aims at his mother. It’s supposed to be funny, but there are squirm-inducing parts, too. Overall, I can’t imagine Cocked being a good ten-episode TV series — I’m not entirely sure where it could go that would be interesting — but there are still some fun bits here and there to keep me somewhat intrigued.
Mad Dogs (Drama)
At first glance, it seems like Mad Dogs is going to be another typical boring drama about a group of middle-aged men in various stages of life (single, married, divorced) who get together and shoot the shit and have general life crises. And yes, it does involve a lot of those things, but it also gets more dramatic, more interesting, and weirder as the hour goes on.
Created by Shawn Ryan (The Shield), Mad Dogs is about four men (Steve Zahn, Romany Malco, Michael Imperioli, and Ben Chaplin, all of varying acting talents but all of whom are capable of the material they have to pull off) who go to meet their rich buddy Milo (Billy Zane) in his giant Belize villa, which the four men will inherit if Milo dies. There are a lot of requisite, expository scenes (they play football, go clubbing, one cheats on his wife, etc.) before the action picks up. Milo steals a boat, which — without spoiling too much — results in a mysterious hitman in a cat mask, a shocking death, and a setup for what could ultimately become the compelling, darkly funny thriller that Amazon needs.
The Man in the High Castle (Drama)
By far the most ambitious pilot Amazon has ever produced, The Man in the High Castle actually pulls off its lofty goals, nearly without a hitch. Based on the award-winning novel by Philip K. Dick and executive produced by Ridley Scott, the alternate-history thriller takes place in a world where the Allied Powers lost World War II. It’s the most promising of the new batch of pilots by a long shot.
In this alternate-universe United States, Japan takes control of the West (Japanese Pacific States) and Germany takes control of the East (Greater Nazi Reich), with tension increasing between both sides. Hitler is still alive (and greatly respected), though it’s rumored that he may have Parkinson’s disease and, according to Ed McCarthy (DJ Qualls!), probably only has about six months to live. Once the Führer dies, there’s going to be war.
The Man in the High Castle is thrilling, if uncomfortable at times (there are swastikas everywhere and cries of “Heil Hitler”), but it’s supposed to be, and it works. It’s the most fleshed-out pilot of the bunch, one that plummets viewers into this disturbing new world and makes us want to see more.