Depending on one’s point of view, Amazon’s periodic dump of pilots into the media ether is either wonderfully democratic – letting users choose what they’d like to see more of – or a bit of a copout, given the traditional process in which executives employ tools like research, yes, but ultimately have to trust their guts. Still, watching the six candidates together does offer a pretty good picture of the service’s off-kilter approach, yielding a mixed bag that contains promise but only sporadically achieves liftoff.
Nobody can accuse Amazon of narrowly sticking with one niche. The lineup — which will be available to view beginning Nov. 5 — includes two half-hours that aren’t designed to be funny, a western, two period pieces, and an almost absurdly dark satire.
Given the inroads Amazon made with the Emmy-nominated “Transparent,” the bar has clearly been raised in terms of expectations. Based on first impressions, perhaps three shows possess strong series potential, while some of the big names have indulged their quirky sides beyond what’s healthy or advisable.
So in roughly descending order of “Yes, I’d like to see another episode of that,” “I might be able to sit through another” and “Once was indeed enough”….
“Z” – In days of yore, the story of Zelda Sayre and F. Scott Fitzgerald would have been a movie, or perhaps a miniseries. Here, it’s distilled into half-hour installments of a series (based on a book about the couple), introducing Zelda before she meets him. Fresh off her spin as Lizzie Borden, Christina Ricci once again rocks the period frocks, with Gavin Stenhouse (“Allegiance”) as Scott and David Strathairn as Zelda’s disapproving Alabama dad, who labels her a “hussy” for cavorting with soldiers before they ship off to World War I. Adapted by Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin, and directed by Tim Blake Nelson, this might not be natural series fodder, but the prologue certainly whets the appetite for a few more chapters. So while “Z” (subtitled “The Beginning of Everything”) might be last in the alphabet, it’s first in our hearts.
“Good Girls Revolt” – Also based on a book, and fictionalized from there, this period drama begins in 1969, charting the rise of the women’s movement through the prism of a weekly magazine, in the days when “girls” were limited to being researchers assisting male reporters and fetching coffee. Grace Gummer helps set the plot in motion playing Nora Ephron – then a young, ambitious writer who chafes against the glass ceiling – while the show features a solid cast that includes Anna Camp, Genevieve Angelson, and Chris Diamantopoulos and Jim Belushi as their piggish bosses. Sure, “Mad Men” covered some of this territory in its later years, but any show that begins with the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert and includes “Light My Fire” can’t be all bad. Plus, it’s an interesting look at journalism back when it operated under a totally print-oriented metabolism. (Dana Calvo wrote the pilot, and in the interest of full disclosure, is a former colleague from our days at the Los Angeles Times.)
“One Mississippi” – Loosely inspired by comic Tig Notaro’s life, and produced by Louis C.K. and Diablo Cody, among others, this extraordinarily dark half-hour begins with Tig returning home to pull the plug on her comatose mother, and – recovering from cancer herself – deciding to hang around for a while. Directed by Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”), the pilot makes “Louie” look like “Friends” on the melancholy scale, but it feels raw and honest, and Notaro exhibits some genuine acting chops.
“Edge” – Although “Edge” probably has more commercial potential than anything else in Amazon’s current quiver, too much of the writing misses the bull’s-eye. Like “Bosch,” another malnourished drama, this western moves a solid tough-guy actor known for supporting roles to the center, casting Max Martini as Josiah “Edge” Hedges, a Union officer hell-bent on revenge in post-Civil War Kansas. Based on a book series, and adapted by Fred Dekker and director Shane Black, the pilot is crazily violent, but also weighted down by clunky dialogue. Ryan Kwanten (“True Blood”) is part of the gang that gives Hedges ample reason to want them dead, with Yvonne Strahovski as the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold. There still might be a decent show here – and as a western fan, it would be nice if there were – but initially, “Edge” has a few too many duds in its chamber.
“Patriot” – Seeking to approximate the tone of “Fargo,” “Patriot” focuses on a “non-official cover” (or NOC) government operative, tasked with trying to help thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Yet the circuitous route toward that objective involves taking a job at a Milwaukee piping firm that does business in the Middle East, forcing agent John Tavner (Michael Dorman) into a series of increasingly absurd predicaments, and leaving his confused new boss (Kurtwood Smith) wondering what’s wrong with his flighty employee. Written and directed by Steven Conrad (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”), the show occupies the same niche that HBO’s “The Brink” did, and – despite some clever moments – mostly just reinforces how difficult it is to consistently hit that target.
“Highston” – “Highston” boasts the most intriguing auspices of any of these series, and nevertheless represents the least interesting show. Written by Bob Nelson (“Nebraska”), directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and counting Sacha Baron Cohen among its producers, the half-hour focuses on the 19-year-old title character (Lewis Pullman), whose imaginary friends are all celebrities. Yet while that’s confusing to his parents (Mary Lynn Rajskub and Chris Parnell), who debate whether to commit him, the whole exercise feels like a rather weak excuse to load up on celebrity cameos, with Shaquille O’Neal and Flea appearing in the pilot. But honestly, what’s the point? “Highston” just feels like FX’s “Wilfred” for people who don’t like anthropomorphic dogs.