Amazon is riding high with its righteous Golden Globe wins for its comedy series “Transparent” and a new deal with Woody Allen. And far be it from me to be a downer, but let’s all try to keep our heads.
As exciting as television’s age of exploration continues to be, Amazon’s fourth pilot season proves good TV, like good anything, is difficult to make – even for deep-pocketed online commerce companies with a clever marketing idea.
Where “Transparent” was one of three pilots that stood out among the five adult dramas and comedies made available to Amazon prime membership around this time last year (“Mozart in the Jungle” and “Bosch” were the others), only one of six now up for votes holds similar promise.
That would be “The Man in the High Castle,” the long-awaited adaptation of the Philip Dick novel of the same name, championed by Ridley Scott.
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As did the book, “The Man in the High Castle” imagines the United States just after World War II has been won, this time by the Axis powers. With Germany apparently the only country in possession of atomic firepower, the eastern half of the country is ruled by the Third Reich, the western by Imperial Japan; a swath of border states serves as a “neutral zone.”
It’s an upsetting, if provocative premise, smartly adapted by “The X-Files’” Frank Spotnitz and one made glorious by sets and cinematography worthy of a Scott production. In the East, we follow the travails of Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), who joins the resistance and is tasked with driving a mysterious package across country. In the West, we meet Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) a young martial arts expert thrust into the underground by her sister and her degenerate-artist lover Frank (Rupert Evans).
As bad as things are, they’re about to get worse. Hitler is suffering from Parkinson’s, and the only thing his potential successors agree on is that cohabitation with Japan must end, even if it means nuking the West Coast.
Although director David Semel gives the pilot a dreamlike quality, the implications of this alternate history are disturbing, often to the point of distraction. But in a landscape obsessed with post-apocalyptic tales, it does raise the question: How real will we let ourselves get?
The five other drama and comedy pilots are equally ambitious but seem much more trouble than they’re worth.
In Cris Cole’s “Mad Dogs,” a group of “modern” (read: emasculated and dissatisfied) men gather at the Belize compound of their mutual and far more successful friend to learn that the only male life worth living involves establishing dominance through violence. The setting is gorgeous, an inspirationally crazy villain appears and the series stars Ben Chaplin, Michael Imperioli, Romany Malco and Steve Zahn, so there is some reason to hope it would get better.
“Cocked” has a similar theme of male malaise and its antidote. This time, the modern (read: emasculated and dissatisfied) guy is Richard Paxson (“True Blood’s” Sam Trammell). The younger and estranged son of a gun-manufacturing dynasty, he’s drawn back into contact with his crazy older brother (Jason Lee) and almost equally crazy father (Brian Dennehy) for reasons that make little or no sense.
Richard fights the good fight, but with a cartoonish boss and a labradoodle, he is ripe for embracing his gun-slinging, law-breaking true self. Any points that Samuel Baum and Sam Shaw’s story gets for demo-targeting (gun owners do not, it must be said, get a lot of TV love) and solid casting are lost in deductions for predictability and making the great Dennehy urinate in close-up. Twice.
Carlton Cuse goes historic in the bodice-busting Civil War drama “Point of Honor,” which attempts to have it both ways on every level. A Virginia family has male members on both sides of the conflict, but even the Confederate marks the firing on Fort Sumter by freeing his slaves (so, you know, he’s not a terrible guy).
Meanwhile, the plantation, named Point of Honor, is really run by a bunch of “strong” women who get to wear hoop skirts while speaking to one another as if they walked off the set of “Pretty Little Liars.” I miss cheesy historical miniseries as much as the next person, but in a word: No.
The two comedies are not much better, especially compared with their Amazon predecessors, “Transparent” and “Alpha House.” In “Salem Rogers,” Leslie Bibb stars as a self-obsessed supermodel who, after being kicked out of a Malibu rehab facility, latches on to her former assistant (Rachel Dratch), now a timid self-help guru. Bulimia jokes are a high point.
The L.A. bashing continues with “Down Dog,” in which a handsome but dense yoga instructor decides to take over the studio where he works. Seriously. That’s what it’s about. And the voice-over narrating his early life lasts almost as long as the action.
All of which adds up to a big “Welcome to the world of television, Amazon.” There will be hits and awards, breakthroughs and victories of consciousness.
But mostly it involves making a bunch of shows that don’t turn out quite the way you hoped they would.