Last April, Amazon entered the original series business in a very novel way: by making 14 pilot episodes – six children’s shows, two animated comedies and six live-action ones – available for all of its customers to watch and offer feedback on, whether through customer reviews or surveys about each show. Amazon didn’t say those things – plus the number of times each show was viewed – would be the only factors for what got turned into a series and what didn’t, but it seemed like a much more democratic, and sensible, approach to series development than the byzantine process most of the networks still use.
In the end, Amazon picked up two of the adult series: “Alpha House,” which had both the biggest star (John Goodman) and the best-known creator (Garry Trudeau, though his fame is more for “Doonesbury” than his work on “Tanner ’88” and its sequel); and “Betas,” about software developers in Silicon Valley, a subject which might have some appeal to the young male demographic Amazon was aiming for. It would have been a shock if “Alpha House” hadn’t been ordered to series with or without the crowdsourcing, and if “Betas” got picked over the higher-profile “Zombieland” spin-off, that could speak as much to the relative costs of each as it could to Amazon reviewers picking the better of the two shows.
Both those shows have already premiered 10 additional episodes – which I haven’t watched, and we’ll get back to that in a minute – and now it’s pilot season time at Amazon again. Starting yesterday, customers could watch any of five new kids’ shows, and five new series for adults – and this time, two of them are hour-long drama series, while two of the half-hour shows trend much more towards dramedy than straight sitcom. Your five grown-up contenders in round two:
* “The After,” which could become Chris Carter’s first series since the end of “The X-Files,” about 8 strangers who find themselves working together to survive a mysterious apocalyptic event;
* “Bosch,” based on Michael Connelly’s popular series of mystery novels about LA cop Harry Bosch, written by Connelly and “The Wire”/”Tremé” alum Eric Overmyer, and starring Titus Welliver in the title role;
* “Mozart in the Jungle,” a dramedy about New York’s classical music scene, created by Paul Weitz, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Alex Timbers, and starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Malcolm McDowell as rival conductors;
* “The Rebels,” essentially a 21st Century version of HBO’s old “1st & Ten,” starring Natalie Zea as a woman who has to take over her late husband’s pro football team, and Hayes MacArthur as the journeyman quarterback she looks to as her franchise’s savior;
* “Transparent,” a dysfunctional family dramedy from “Six Feet Under” and “United States of Tara” vet Jill Soloway, starring Jeffrey Tambor as the father with a secret and Gaby Hoffmann, Jay Duplass and Amy Landecker as his grown-up, self-involved children.
With the exception of “The Rebels” (which, other than one monkey-related gag that I believe was designed solely to elicit a positive review from Dan Fienberg, is terrible), these all seem like huge leaps forward for Amazon. On the whole, they have higher-profile creators, more recognizable actors, better production values (if not actual higher budgets), and a higher level of both ambition and execution. I never felt compelled to watch later episodes of “Alpha House” (though I’ve heard from friends that it maintained the shooting fish in a barrel style of humor from the pilot) or “Betas,” but I’d happily watch more of “Transparent” and would stick with “Bosch,” “Mozart” and “The After” for a bit just to see what they become.
What’s most promising is how several of the shows feel like they would never survive a traditional development process, though we’ll have to see if they fare any better with Amazon’s crowd-sourcing. Even FX is not going to do a dramedy about a young oboist trying to make her way in the big city, and if HBO were to make “Transparent,” it would likely be one of their niche series (like “Enlightened” or “Getting On”) that stuck around for at least a bit because the executives liked it and not because they brought in big audiences. It could be that neither “Mozart” nor “Transparent” will fare well with the reviewers, but it’s also possible that one of them – “Transparent,” in particular, which is easily the best of the five but has a tone that will be alienating to many but intensely appealing to some – will generate a passionate enough response, albeit a small one, to intrigue the Amazon executives.
This all assumes, again, that customer feedback is a significant part of the decision process, rather than something to generate buzz and make the customers feel attached to the shows that get picked up. But if it’s just for buzz, it’s worked. I barely pay attention to shows in traditional development, and very rarely write about any of them, and here I’ve just done another long post about these Amazon pilots because I’ve had the chance to see and vote on them.
I’m curious which ones you guys have watched, and what you thought, but first a few more specific thoughts from me:
* In the books, Harry Bosch is a humorless, self-righteous prick whom we admire despite his lack of people skills because he’s so single-minded in his pursuit of justice. Connelly, Overmyer and Welliver have softened the character significantly here – there’s even a scene where another cop is pleasantly surprised when Bosch tells her a joke – but in a way that might make more sense as an ongoing live-action series, as I think the intensity of book Bosch might be hard to take in this format. The pilot is adapting parts of a few different Bosch books, with the plot of the eighth book, “City of Bones,” apparently serving as the spine for what would be the first season. Jim McKay did an excellent job shooting LA, and Overmyer brought in some other “Wire” alums for the supporting cast (Jamie Hector as Bosch’s partner, who in the pilot resembles the Jerry Edgar of the books in name only, and Lance Reddick as Deputy Chief Irving). It needs some polishing, but Welliver and the creative team will get a lot of rope from me.
* “X-Files” has, like “Lost,” gotten so much grief over how poorly it wrapped up its various mysteries that many fans now gloss over the things it did so well. “The After” feels like a combination of the good “X-Files” and the bad one: lots of suspense and creepy atmosphere, but also a series of questions where I’m now innately skeptical of Carters’ ability to answer them, plus some incredibly broad characterization (drunken and belligerent Irishman, bitter black convict) that will need to be improved very quickly (as in, by the second episode) for me to stick around, even though I like Aldis Hodge, Adrian Pasdar and Sharon Lawrence quite a bit going in. Also, the closing scene is so bonkers that it is either going to hook the audience or chase them away in fits of laughter.
* It’s hard to say much about “Transparent” without discussing a detail that the pilot treats as a surprise. So I’ll just say a couple of things: 1)Tambor is excellent, in a much more dramatic role than he usually plays (albeit one with much in common with his more familiar ones); 2)There is definitely a lot of “Six Feet Under” DNA here, albeit in a more realistic world with a different overall theme; and 3)Full frontal nudity is now apparently something Hoffmann puts in all her contracts.
* In “Mozart in the Jungle,” the tone is more arch than overtly comic, but the world feels fully-realized – there’s a nice sequence midway through where we see the kind of drinking games classical musicians play – and the Gael Garcia Bernal character is flamboyant without being cartoonish. (Knowing Schwartzman was one of the writers, and that he and Coppola have both worked with Wes Anderson, I kept imagining a more Max Fischer take on the character; the approach they took works better.)
So have at it: What did you watch, what did you think, and what would you predict Amazon might go forward with?