Sunday, 18 January 2015


Sunday, 18 January 2015

It's Amazon pilot time... again. From the lows (axing The After before production began) to the highs (Transparent winning two Golden Globes), I think we've all adjusted our expectations of Amazon's pilots. A few will be very good, most will be decent but forgettable, and some will be just plain awful. I've seen all of the latest batch for winter 2015, so below are my capsule reviews of each...

Sam Trammell's escaped the career black hole of True Blood, to take the lead in Amazon's COCKED (★★★☆). He plays corporate lap dog Richard Paxson, who left his country roots in Colorado to become a big city player, but is called back to the family nest when his father's gun business gets into financial bother. It's a fairly straightforward tale, of a man being pulled back into the bosom of his family after a two-decade absence, and there are winning performances from a clean-shaven Trammell, Jason Lee as his playboy brother Grady, and Brian Dennehy as their father Wade. Less successful are the female characters—Richard's liberal wife (Laura Fraser), and ambitious sister Tabby Paxson (Dreama Walker)—who all feel shoehorned into the plot and don't feel particularly necessary.

While there's nothing revolutionary about Cocked, it was an enjoyable hour of entertainment and I'd watch more to see if creators Samuel Baum (Lie to Me) and Sam Shawn (Manhattan) can keep the in's-and-out's of a big firearms business interesting. My only real criticism is that the Paxson family weren't particularly monstrous or disagreeable, so the idea Richard spent his youth looking to escape didn't feel very believable. Even the fact they're in the business of selling weapons wasn't such a bone of contention, even speaking as a non-American who finds the selling of guns to everyday citizens quite alarming.

My least favourite pilot was half-hour comedy DOWN DOG (★☆☆☆), about a late-thirties Southern Californian called Logan Wood (Josh Casaubon), who's coasted through his blessed life and currently works as a yoga instructor for classes of hot women and celebrities. Logan's forced to 'grow up' when his current girlfriend (Paget Brewster) and owner of the yoga studio breaks up with him, pushing him down a path that's less dependent on his good looks and the lovestruck women that cross his path.

There are a number of things that work against Down Dog succeeding, but chief amongst them is the fact it's not very funny—which is exacerbated thanks to a pointless narration from, I believe, the man who performs the same task in the Anchorman movies. (Or at the very least an intentional soundalike.) That voice sets up expectations of a much broader, funnier comedy, but Down Dog's almost relentlessly unfunny... with few actual jokes or amusing moments. Instead, Josh Casaubon (face of Michael C. Hall, demeanour of Keanu Reeves) sleepwalks through a string of scenes, mainly there to look handsome and vacant, then occasionally have sex with a beautiful woman. The concept is dry, the lead character's boring, there are zero laughs, it’s not entertaining or sexy, and let's just forget this ever happened.

Remember MAD DOGS (★★★☆), the UK TV thriller about four middle-aged friends who convene at a mutual pal's overseas villa, then get embroiled in a weird crime plot? It was a solid effort from writer Cris Cole, which unravelled the longer it strayed beyond a natural first-series conclusion; becoming increasingly stupid until a loopy and unsatisfying finale. Well, here comes the U.S remake from The Shield creator Shawn Ryan and Marney Hochman (Last Resort), which is a beat-for-beat reproduction from Cole that alters a few details; so now we have four American buddies—Cobi (Steve Zahn), Gus (Romany Malco), Lex (Michael Imperioli) and Joel (Ben Chaplin)—visiting rich friend Milo (Billy Zane) in a beautiful Belizean villa.

There aren't any big changes to the storyline, just differences in terms of tone and content. It felt less like a fever-dream than the original was, which means it's more conventional. Notably, this episode moved past the jaw-dropping moment the UK version chose to end its premiere on, meaning it's a little easier to grasp just what the hell's going on. Having seen the original get increasingly unbearable to watch, I can only hope the remake fixes its many flaws and produces something entirely different and more unified. The cast are certainly more appealing than the British lineup, with an amusing quirk being that original UK star Ben Chaplin (who first played the 'Milo' character) is now appearing as one of the core foursome.

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (★★★★) is the most ambitious, fully-formed, and rewarding pilot. Loosely based on a 1962 story by Philip K. Dick, it takes place in the 1960s of an alternate history where Nazi Germany won WWII and bisected the United States of America with their Japanese allies. The pilot tells the stories of two ordinary Americans living on opposite coasts, 20-years after the war was won by nuking Washington D.C: in the German-occupied New York City there's Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), son of a U.S war veteran who's never known anything but occupation, who decides to join a resistance movement; and in the Japanese-occupied Los Angeles there's Juliana Frink (Alexa Davalos), a more proselytised woman who enjoys Asian culture, but who nevertheless joins the rebellion after her half-sister's murdered shortly after Juliana received an anti-fascist newsreel.

Understandably, this pilot spends a lot of time on exposition and creating a believable world, but that's perfectly fine by me. The whole show is built around a big 'what if?' line of speculation, and I was very impressed by how creator Frank Spotnitz (The X Files) made it feel quite plausible. I especially enjoyed seeing how this version of the 1960s feels very antiquated and stuck in the 1940s, only with fascist propaganda everywhere. There are also a fair number of chilling moments, but the best was a likable traffic cop's carefree explanation for the sky suddenly raining ash (I won't completely spoil it). I haven't read Dick's award-winning novel, so can't speak to how well a full series would develop, but the concept's so undeniably juicy and, well, different... that Amazon simply have to make more. The stylishly disturbing opening credits alone make this one a winner.

We're used to Amazon's pilot concentrating on hour-long drama and half-hour comedy, but there's an interesting change of format with THE NEW YORKER PRESENTS (★★☆☆). This would-be documentary series is a televised version of the popular magazine, dividing its thirty minutes into chunks (a short story, an interview, a documentary, a poem). As you'd expect, it's very well-made and highbrow filmmaking (Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme directed the documentary segment), so will only have big appeal to a scholarly demographic. I'm not sure what the state of arts TV is across the pond, but here in the UK we have a fair amount of cultural programming, so The New Yorker Presents didn't feel as necessary to me. If Amazon commissioned a full series, I would probably only dip into the occasional interview or documentary that interested me.

Randall Wallace is best-known for scripting Braveheart, which is infamously littered with historical inaccuracies, but fortunately I'm not much of a history buff when it comes to the American Civil War. In fact, I find that period of U.S history slightly dull, so POINT OF HONOR (★★☆☆) wasn't something I was keen to sample. Co-created by Wallace and Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel), this pilot concerns a Virginia family protecting the South from an encroaching Union Army. Adding a little spice is the fact the Rhodes family decide to free their slaves at the onset of war, and eldest son John Rhodes (Nathan Parsons) is fighting against his best-friend and brother-in-law Robert Sumner (Christopher O'Shea).

The problem I have with U.S Civil War dramas is that they tend to feel very samey, and Point of Honor is guilty of utilising many of the clichés you're braced for (the use of violins in the soundtrack, black slaves singing "Amazing Grace"). However, I wonder if Downton Abbey was a mild inspiration for this show, because the Rhodes feel like a similarly fantasised bunch of wealthy do-gooders, and it's interesting to see the inner-workings of their plantation—which is being managed by three sisters as John leaves for war. It also looks beautiful, having been filmed on location across the picturesque Virginia countryside, which lends added authenticity and aesthetic appeal. I wasn't completely hooked after an hour, and the climactic shock felt predictable because so many pilots do something similar nowadays (to show they ain't foolin' around), but I'd probably watch a few more for signs of life.

SALEM ROGERS (★★☆☆) is a half-hour comedy about a has-been supermodel (41-year-old Leslie Bibb, playing 36), who leaves rehab after a decade and tries to rebuild her career, with the help of her frumpy former assistant Agatha (SNL's Rachel Dratch), who's since become a best-selling author of teen self-help books. Salem's a sexy but bitchy monster that fits Bibb's skill-set like a Louboutin shoe, and she has a surprisingly strong and enjoyable dynamic with the diminutive Dratch. This sitcom's obvious targets and fashion biz milieu doesn't interest me much, so I doubt I would watch any more, but there's no denying the appeal of the Bibb-Dratch duo and its arrogantly beautiful antihero left a tangy impression. There was also memorable support from Harry Hamlin (Mad Men) as Bibb's coke-snorting ex-boss, who now considers her a washed-up nobody. Interestingly, this pilot was a successful submission to Amazon's open screenplay submission scheme from newcomer Lindsey Stoddart, which is pleasing to know.

And finally, the descending order of how eager I am to see a whole series of these pilots:
1. The Man in the High Castle
2. Mad Dogs
3. Cocked
4. Point of Honor
5. Salem Rogers
6. The New Yorker Presents
7. Down Dog
Did you see any of Amazon's newest pilot episodes? Which were your favourites, and do you agree with my brief assessments above?