Over the past week, I’ve been working my way through the eight pilot episodes released by Amazon.com as part of their new foray into the television production business. Coming off of the heels of Netlix’s success with their release of their first original program, House of Cards, it’s no surprise that other companies like Amazon and Hulu are putting in every effort to stake out their own claims in the burgeoning digital market for original programming. Before I go into my rankings of the pilot episodes Amazon Studios has released so far, I’d like to explain a bit more about the unique way in which the experiment is being handled.
Unlike Netflix, which put all of its eggs on basket (successfully so it happens) with one, high-budget show, Amazon Studios went with a more traditional approach by creating a larger number of pilot episodes that may or may not be given the green light for a full season depending on how well audiences respond to them. What’s not so traditional about the process here is that rather than using focus groups to measure audiences’ reactions to a program before airing it, Amazon is opening up the floor to the general public by allowing everyone and anyone who watches the pilot episodes to leave their feedback. After an as of yet undisclosed period of time, the decision will be made as to which episodes will make the cut and which will never again see the light of your laptop screen.
There are pluses and minuses regarding this strategy, and it remains to be seen which will outweigh the other. One of the biggest criticisms of the system Amazon is using is that audiences are left with nothing but a single, low-budget pilot episode to judge a series by, yet history has shown that a bad pilot doesn’t necessarily translate to an unsuccessful show (I.e. Seinfeld, The Office, Parks and Recreation) nor does a great pilot translate to a successful show (FIREFLY!!!!!!!!!!!!). That being said, at least with the methods Amazon is using we all get our chance to put in our two cents worth rather than having it all be up to some sample audience somewhere.
Now, enough talk, let’s get into the series themselves. One thing that you will notice about the pilots below is that rather than partnering with established writers, directors and, for the most part, actors, the majority of these pilots are the result of a sort of Crowdsourcing campaign Amazon started up a short while back. As a result, the majority of the pilots feature no-name casts, writers and/or directors. While this keeps costs down for Amazon and shakes up the industry’s status-quo, it’s also fairly noticeable in terms of quality. Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up.
Set in contemporary Manhattan, it follows four young people as they start their first jobs at a news website.
The first and foremost if not only thing you need to know is that Browsers is a musical that features original songs rather than a horde of lackluster covers (*cough cough* Glee *cough*). If this sounds like something that you would like, the lack of alternatives on the air right now would probably lead you to be willing to see more. I, on the other hand, fall squarely into the opposite category. I can’t stand contemporary musicals, and because of that fact no amount of decent writing would have been able to make this Pilot anything more than nails on a chalkboard to me. That being said, I will admit that some of the writing is completely passable which prevented me from absolutely loathing it.
The Verdict: 3.0/10 – Just Plain Bad
Watch if you like: Glee, High School Musical, etc.
In Silicon Valley, the right algorithm can make you a king. And these four friends think they’ve finally cracked the code.
I had a lot of hope for this show. From the sound of the premise, it seemed like this could function as a sort of Big Bang Theory for those who consider themselves Techies more than Trekkies. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Featuring a cast of complete unknowns (which the small exception of Karan Soni aka the Indian kid from Safety Not Guaranteed) and a script which is about as light on laughs as it is on relatability, Betas has a long way to go before it’ll have any chance of converting me. As a side note, it doesn’t help the Pilot’s situation that the “code” that the leads are trying to “crack” with their new app is something online dating sites have already been doing for years.
The Verdict: 4.0/10 – Not Worth it
Watch if you like: The Guild, King of the Nerds
Two slackers try to make a paycheck working an intergalactic warship.
This is a tough one to judge because a great deal of the issues that I had with the Pilot were due to the absolutely skeletal production budget, a fact which the show acknowledges in its first scene. The opening of the episode features the lead character, Mel (John Ross Bowie aka Kripke from The Big Bang Theory) explaining that if the show is given a green light, it will be shot fully in stop-motion or Claymation format. The episode itself demos this in a few scenes and it looks fine, but the rest of the episode uses a level of jerky, traditional animation that makes the first seasons of South Park look high-tech. The writing is okay, but it never rises above mildly amusing. The presence of a few other notable voice-actors is a plus, but not a huge one. Bottom line, I wouldn’t be sad to see this one kick the bucket.
The Verdict: 4.5/10 – Sub-Par
Watch if you like: Troopers (CollegeHumor), Red Dwarf
Three juvenile, misfit teachers are just as immature, if not more so, than the students they teach.
We’ve now crossed into the areas of the pilots I would be willing to give a second chance, however unenthusiastic I may be about some of them. Between some fairly funny writing and an amusing premise (for some reason I like watching adults be immature around children), I can see myself sticking around for a full season of Those Who Can’t. That being said, I’m still not very enthusiastic about the cast itself. The three leads are all character types we’ve seen before, and the actors behind them do absolutely nothing to rise above that. That being said, it always takes a while for a show’s cast and crew to find its identity, and that’s something I think that this show could easily do if it’s given the chance.
The Verdict: 6.0/10 – Passable
Watch if you like: Bad Teacher, Workaholics
While it may not be my favorite of the eight Pilots, I will at least say that Supanatural was the most pleasantly surprising seeing as I was expecting to absolutely hate it. Between low quality animation and characters often flirt with the boundaries between comedy and overt racism, there are plenty of reasons why any of you might dislike Supanatural. In the end, it all depends on your preferences, but if you’re like me in that you enjoy the occasional tryst into Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim territory, this might be right up your alley. As I said before, the lead characters’ Barbershop-toned dialogue forces you to occasionally ask yourself if it’s okay to be laughing. To the show’s credit though, I prefer mildly offensive humor to no humor at all, I’ll take occasional discomfort over boredom any day.
The Verdict: 6.0/10 – Passable
Watch if you like: Metalocalypse, Pretty much anything else on Adult Swim
Four survivors are killin’ zombies and searching for a place to call home. At least they have each other.
If you’ve heard of any one of the Pilots here, it’s probably this one. Whether the thought of a television adaptation of the 2009 movie filled you with dread or anticipation, the fact that you even knew about it means that it has a good chance of making the cut. I myself and a HUGE fan of the movie itself, so when I first heard that it was being continued on the small screen I was pretty optimistic. As time when on and the revelation was made that not only would the original actors not be involved, but that their characters would be maintained and replace by a set of no-names, my optimism took a complete nose-dive. My only consolation was that the movie’s writers were still signed on. Now that I’ve seen the Pilot itself, I can tell you that it is exactly what you’d expect from a small-screen adaptation with the same writers but a different cast from the film version. The result is incredibly frustrating as there are plenty of ways in which the sick, Zombie-killin’ fun of the source material is preserved, but all of those ways are stained by the fact that the new cast can’t hold the smallest of candles to the original four. The sad thing is, the new people aren’t necessarily that bad, but by placing them into the same roles as Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin the producers force the comparison between the old and the new. This is almost a deal-breaker for me here, but for the sake of the writing and the fun take on the Zombie genre I will try to withhold judgement until I see more.
The Verdict: 6.0/10 – Passable
Watch if you like: Zombieland, Kickass (though both movies are vastly superior)
Follows four senators who live together in a rented house in Washington DC.
How bad can a show be when it stars John Goodman? Apparently the answer is not bad at all, but still not nearly as great as it should be. Alpha House boasts a great cast, an extremely promising premise, and the full Piñata of political satire opens up a huge amount of potential comedy gold. On those merits alone I’d be willing to sign up for a full season of the show. Unfortunately, the Pilot itself just isn’t that funny or insightful in much of any way at all. John Goodman is woefully underused, and the much-hyped Bill Murray cameo is over before you even really realize it’s him. I still have high hopes for the show, but it’s going to have to do some pretty serious soul-searching before it comes back for full season.
The Verdict: 6.5/10 – Perfectly Adequate
Watch if you like: Doonsebury, The Colbert Report
Set behind the scenes of The Onion News Network that shows just how far journalists will go to stay at the top of their game.
Of all of the episodes here, which are all intended as comedies, this was this only one that had me legitimately laughing out loud. Like Supanatural, the bottom line with whether or not you’ll like Onion News Empire is whether or not you like the kind of ridiculous, over-the-top satire that it revolves around. I for one am a pretty big fan of the real-life fake news site that lends the show its namesake, so the kind of humor here worked really well for me. Combine that style of writing with a great cast that features Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development) and Christopher Masterson (Malcolm in the Middle), and the result is an extremely entertaining Pilot that feel more confident in its identity than anything else on the list.
The Verdict: 8.0/10 – Pretty Damn Great
Watch if you like: The Onion News Network, Children’s Hospital
Well there you have them, all eight new episodes from Amazon’s Pilot Week. As a whole, I was pretty disappointed by low production values and an overall lack of substantial comedy, but the first step is always the hardest. I have great faith that Amazon will be able to learn from this experiment and continue to grow its presence on the production side of the business. Of course I’m a bit biased as I’ll be starting work at Amazon in a few months, but I’ll leave it up to you to weigh the fairness of my opinions.
In any case you can find all of the Pilots here, or you can click on the link for each episode in the title to be taken directly to it. Each is completely free to watch online and I’d love to hear any feedback you might have. I haven’t heard much of anything about these episodes from other bloggers, so I’d love to get some other opinions in the mix.