Amazon Pilot Season 2016
In the wild, wild west of digital content, any strategy that keeps you on top is fair game. Netflix smashes the competition with its one thousand monkeys at one thousand typewriters strategy, somehow creating enough great original shows (BOJACK HORSEMAN, STRANGER THINGS, NARCOS) that everyone forgets about the backlog of utter shit buried like embarrassing high school yearbook photos (RICHIE RICH). Netflix’s greatest advantage is its keen eye for content that users will actually want to watch, no doubt thanks to the mountains of unreleased viewership data Ted Sarandos has fashioned into his own private castle. Hulu competes with a kickass TV section, boasting a wide variety and weekly access to shows currently airing. Amazon limps along in third place, propping itself up with TRANSPARENT and by not being Crackle.
This is 75% of Google Image results for “Crackle”
“Hmmm…” thought Amazon, drinking alone on a Friday night and trying not to be butthurt about not being invited to Netflix’s birthday party. “How do I stand out? How do I consistently produce quality content while making sure people will actually watch it?” The answer is obvious: have Amazon Prime Video users vote on pilots American Idol style!
Yes, this is a real thing, though it’s a little rough around the edges. TRANSPARENT, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, MOZART IN THE JUNGLE, and this year’s ONE MISSISSIPPI are all alums of Amazon’s various pilot “seasons.” They release a batch of pilots, allow users to vote for their favorite, and presumably greenlight the one with the most votes. However, TRANSPARENT (Amazon’s most successful show to date) allegedly received the least number of views and votes the year it was picked up. Rumors that Amazon execs already pretty much know which shows they want to produce are most likely not unfounded, but the various batches of pilots have a range of tone and quality that shows at least the illusion of openness.
With all this said, here are this year’s three Amazon pilots and our suggestion for where your vote should fall, even though it might not matter anyway. Oh, well!
JEAN-CLAUDE VAN JOHNSON is as quick on its sendups as Jean-Claude Van Damme is on his roundhouse kicks. Parodying both the action and the loosely-autobiographical-TV show genres, JEAN-CLAUDE VAN JOHNSON sees Jean-Claude Van Damme restarting his career as an ass-kicking super spy (Johnson) while starring in the worst action movie reboots Hollywood can possibly conjure. JOHNSON is heavy on action and on cheese. It’s absolutely hilarious in an “I can’t believe what I’m seeing” kind of way. This is undoubtedly a fantastic pilot, but I worry that the joke pretty much ends after thirty minutes. Most of the humor stems from Van Damme’s performance as a highly stylized version of himself, and the “Ha ha! It’s actually Jean-Claude Van Damme!” aspect can’t possibly maintain its novelty for an entire season, let alone multiple seasons. JOHNSON is definitely worth watching, but as an excellent short film and not as a pilot.
I LOVE DICK explores its female protagonist’s emotional complexities as well as any TV show based on a feminist novel worth its salt. Chris, an aspiring filmmaker, accompanies her milquetoast husband to a highly exclusive writers workshop hosted by the mysterious Dick. Although we’ve seen this story of enigmatic sex god versus flaccid husband before, I LOVE DICK sets itself apart with its stylistic approach. Chris narrates quotations from the novel displayed in stark white text on bright red backgrounds, serving as chapter divisions. The cinematography captures the simultaneously barren and rich Texas landscape — particularly in one of the pilot’s final shots of a hillside at sunset and Kevin Bacon’s sweet hams. A dreamlike sequence encapsulating Chris’ desire for Dick (literally and figuratively) plays out in disturbing gorgeousness. At first, it may seem that Chris’ attraction to Dick stems from Dick generally being an asshole, but I have faith in this show to capture the complexity of feeling like you’ve been figured out rather than copping out by making its otherwise strong female protagonist go crawling after a man solely because he treats her like shit. Hopefully, if this gets picked up to series, these problems will resolve themselves, but for now, I LOVE DICK is off to a strong start.
THE TICK enters into a heavily saturated playing field of superhero films and television. From the gaping maw of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to instant streaming juggernauts DAREDEVIL and JESSICA JONES, THE TICK really has the odds stacked against itself to stand out. The decision to focus primarily on the accountant-turned-sidekick Arthur rather than the wisecracking superhero is somewhat different, but the plot is a little too Joseph Campbell to be interesting in this genre. (At one point, The Tick even refers to Arthur’s development as “the hero’s journey” and “monomyth.”) On a deeper level, the character of The Tick feels like a parody of mostly irrelevant superhero tropes — more of a sendup of 1940s comic books than the deluge of modern superhero media. In short, this pilot is fine; but “fine” is death in a genre defined by “super.”
So now that we’re all educated voters, where should your vote fall? JOHN-CLAUDE VAN JOHNSON is by far the most original and entertaining, but its lack of longevity prevents me from clicking that button. THE TICK is pretty slight, though I hear it’s been picked up to series anyway in an uncharacteristic display of network optimism. I LOVE DICK fits closest tonally with Amazon’s existing docket of original programming in addition to being created by Jill Soloway, the creator of TRANSPARENT. This points pretty heavily to I LOVE DICK being picked up. It seems virtually confirmed that our votes don’t matter, but this is a rare case of an election being rigged for the better. However, all of these pilots are worth a watch, and kudos to Amazon for putting out a variety of content for us to enjoy — even if it’s just one glorious episode.
Crossfader’s Pick: I LOVE DICK