The future of television is upon us. Well, at least for those of us with Wi-Fi. The relative ubiquity of the Internet and the increasing popularity of streaming technologies have prompted some of our favorite Internet startups to begin dabbling in the production of their own original series. Netflix, previously an exclusive online distribution service, proved itself as a competitive force in the arena of original programming this past year after the release of a few critically acclaimed series—namely “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Their success has not gone unnoticed and we now find ourselves in the midst of a digital arms race, with companies like YouTube, Hulu, Yahoo, Amazon and a handful of others all vying for a piece of the viewership pie.
Last week marked the start of another pilot season from Amazon, an interesting twist on the online production process. The theory behind pilot season is relatively simple—Amazon releases a number of original pilots and then gauges the reactions of viewers, with the intention that the well-received will be chosen to become full-length series. This year, three comedies —“Mozart in the Jungle,” “The Rebels,” “Transparent”—and two dramas—”The After,” “Bosch”—were released. I watched them all and was feeling pretty discouraged until I found something to be truly excited about.
Let’s start with the dramas. “The After” markets itself as a sci-fi from the creators of “The X-Files,” hoping to attract the attention of the franchise’s mega-fanbase. The premise is a familiar one—eight bickering strangers are forced to stick together after the onset of the apocalypse—with an added conspiratorial twist. The acting, for the most part, is subpar and all of the roles resemble stereotypical stock characters. I would say skip this one but actually go ahead and watch it anyways because the end is kind of terrifying.
The creators of “Bosch” have taken name dropping to new heights—the show features Titus Welliver (“Lost”, “Sons of Anarchy”), Scott Wilson (“The Walking Dead”), Lance Reddick and Jamie Hector (“The Wire”), among others. Based on the crime series by Michael Connelly, the pilot introduces us to a troubled homicide detective whose life is further complicated after the bones of a child are found buried among the hills of L.A. It has potential but after experiencing HBO’s new crime drama “True Detective,” my standards for the genre have been raised exponentially.
The first of the comedies, “Mozart in the Jungle,” stems from the creative minds of Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman (both of Wes Anderson fame) and Alex Timbers and is loosely based on the novel “Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music.” It has the essence of a CW soap and I unfortunately didn’t find it comedic. At one point during an audition, the newly appointed conductor (Gael García Bernal) suggests his boredom by asking his assistant for a turkey sandwich instead of commenting on the action onstage. From that moment on, all I could focus on was turkey sandwiches.
Even before the opening credits rolled around, I knew that “The Rebels” would be, uh, interesting. The show centers on a recent widow (Natalie Zea) and the obstacles that ensue after she inherits her late husband’s professional football team. The pilot features Josh Peck as the team’s newly appointed general manager, as well as a cocaine-sniffing, handgun-wielding monkey. Fans of slapstick might find this one enjoyable, but I can confidently say that I will not be voting for its survival.
I was disappointed, cranky and craving a turkey sandwich until I reached the last of the five episodes. Out of all the pilots, “Transparent” is the real gem and potentially Amazon’s shot at Netflix success. I must admit I was already a fan of the show’s creator, Jill Soloway—“Six Feet Under” and “United States of Tara” have been a few of my past obsessions. Like “Six Feet Under,” “Transparent” is a black comedy with some serious, thought-provoking undercurrents. The show stars Jeffrey Tambor as a father who summons his three seemingly apathetic children (Gaby Hoffmann, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker) to dinner one night in order to tell them something important. We soon learn that he is not the only one keeping secrets. The manner in which “Transparent” deals with the notions of sex, love and identity is something I don’t often see on network TV and I am hoping this one survives the pilot stage.
All things said, it might be a bit too early to solidify any judgements. I usually need a few episodes to fully engage with a series and a fantastic first episode does not always equate to a successful season. However, if any of these sound worthwhile, watch the pilot and tell Amazon what you think—its future as a series depends on it.
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