Amazon asks customers to “Watch. Rate. Review” its new pilots, giving them a vote, and stake, in the development process. Yet the two candidates being trotted out on Aug. 7, “Casanova” and “Sneaky Pete,” both exhibit the limits of this democratic approach, and the elusive nature of what defines premium programming. While both projects conjure some curiosity about where they’re heading – and are probably more apt to do so among those willing to sample them – neither feels like it fully takes off based strictly on first impressions.
During a session with journalists at the TV Critics Assn. tour earlier this week, Amazon executives sounded a bit smug as they dismissed traditional TV metrics and stressed their desire to engage viewers in a passionate way. The primary question that motivates them, they said, is “How do you make someone’s favorite show?”
If that’s the criterion, then despite some virtues, it’s back to the drawing board. Because while both shows feature compelling stars and interesting pedigrees, neither feels distinctive enough to become a favorite for many of the more discriminating viewers drawn to pay-TV fare.
“Sneaky Pete,” produced by “House’s” David Shore and Bryan Cranston, was initially developed for CBS, and those roots show. While the pilot takes advantage of its star producer by featuring him in a tantalizing cameo, until the closing moments (designed, clearly, to plant the “What’s next?” hook), this introductory hour feels like a traditional network procedural with a top-flight cast, hardly anyone’s idea of a show that’s ready for Amazon Prime time.
Giovanni Ribisi stars as a con man who, needing a place to hide out, takes refuge with the family of his former cellmate, who has spent the past several years regaling him with stories. The family, conveniently, hasn’t seen “Pete” in close to 20 years, so presumably a skilled grifter would have a chance to sustain the ruse, at least for a while.
So far, so pretty good, especially with Margo Martindale and Peter Gerety as his not-really grandparents. But then our antihero stumbles into helping out with the family bail-bond business, assisting the family member running it (Marin Ireland) in hunting down those who have jumped bail. So “Pete” is about 40 minutes of ho-hum with five of “That’s intriguing,” much of it saved until near the end.
“Casanova,” meanwhile, would seem to need no introduction, and offers plenty of built-in excuse for sex and nudity. Moreover, it stars Diego Luna in the title role and was directed by “Amelie’s” Jean Pierre Jeunet, which on its face looks like a coup.
The resulting hour, however, blends in with a whole array of less-distinguished period dramas – as if Starz’s “Da Vinci’s Demons” had a not-as-interesting child with “The Tudors.” It’s handsome, yes, but moves so slowly, and develops so few of the characters, that its more illicit enticements don’t feel like enough compensation to keep watching.
In the pilot, the 18th-century playboy escapes a Venetian prison and flees to Paris, where he is quickly drawn into a web of palace intrigue surrounding the mistress to the king. Other than the recognizable name, though, there’s not much fun in the proceedings, which merely provoked a desire to go watch Errol Flynn again in “The Adventures of Don Juan.”
Amazon has obviously made major inroads as a serious programming option, although it has thus far generated more of a splash with half-hours, such as “Transparent,” than its dramas. (The company has proclaimed “Bosch” a success, but creatively speaking, that’s not an opinion shared here.)
“A man should not be defined by one thing in his life,” Casanova says wearily at one point, although as vices go, his are better than most. In a perfect world a TV series wouldn’t be judged solely by its pilot either, but in television, as in love, you throw your heart into it and take your chances.