With the recent release of House of Cards and Hemlock Grove, Netflix has established serious interest in the original programming market. Amazon, another major player in online streaming services with Prime Instant Video, has made the first major step to follow suit. Late last week, 16 pilots were made available for free streaming on Amazon – 8 comedies and 6 children’s series. Most buzz has surrounded the pilot for Zombieland, a series written by the creators of the 2009 film of the same name. But some of the other pilots feature experienced production and acting credits (notably John Goodman in Alpha House and Jeffrey Tambor in Onion News Empire). Amazon is letting viewers fill out mini-surveys for each pilot as a means of collecting feedback to help decide whether or not a series gets picked up for a full season. Sound On Sight is here to offer some feedback for the comedy pilots:
Directed by Adam Bernstein
Written by Garry Trudeau
Starring John Goodman with guest appearances by Bill Murray and Stephen Colbert, the pilot for Alpha House has its share of well-executed gags. The eponymous house is shared by four senators (played by Goodman, Mark Consuelos, Clark Johnson and Matt Malloy) who fight for every advantage they can get in the political game – think of something like Veep-meets-Entourage. It’s interesting that Amazon would immediately invest in a comedic competitor to Netflix’s own political series, House of Cards, though the two share little beyond the surface level. In its own right, Alpha House survives on its acting chops alone, but it’s a stretch to say that the pilot matches the bite of something like Veep or the intelligent satire of Parks and Recreation. But if you don’t watch those shows or can’t get enough of political comedy, Alpha House is worth checking out.
Worth a Full-Season Pick-Up: Maybe. With only an interesting quirk per character, these senators will need some further development to become a household with a solid foundation.
Directed by Michael Lehmann
Written by Evan Endicott and Josh Stoddard
Last year, the independent film Safety Not Guaranteed was released, which had characters played by Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson and Karan Soni chase down a news story about a time traveler. Plaza and Johnson have situated themselves into strong roles in strong comedy series (April in Parks and Recreation and Nick in New Girl, respectively), and Betas genuinely feels like it could be a similarly breakthrough role for Soni even if his isn’t the strongest character. The show is about four technology geeks (a lot of these Amazon pilots feature four main characters) trying to find that next big app that will get them fame, fortune and women. Betas is not a laugh-out-loud kind of comedy that lays on the jokes; it has begun with a smart, observant pilot that seems interested in and sympathetic towards its characters. The writing for the character Trey (Joe Dinicol) is especially nuanced and brings some of that ambitious magic that made Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network so endearing – and Trey is a much more likable person. Based on the pilot’s ending, a first season arc appears to be thought out, and Betas certainly has the legs to last a while as a series.
Worth a Full-Season Pick-Up: Yes. Betas’ is, overall, the best of these Amazon pilots.
Directed by Don Scardino
Written by David Javerbaum
Another four-character ordeal, Browsers brings in some new interns to a Manhattan news website, Gush, as they try to survive what is essentially a freshman initiation week. Most importantly, Browsers is a musical comedy, and musical TV shows in general live and die by the music. Unfortunately, Browsers’ numbers just aren’t up to scratch, most of them falling short of being catchy and/or funny. This is a shame, because even though some of the main characters fit neatly into archetypes (the still-living-at-home loser, the tech-savvy Asian nerd), there is at least some interesting material, such as when Gabriel (Marque Richardson) almost blows his chance at the company by standing up for his beliefs.
Worth a Full-Season Pick-Up: No. There might have been the makings of a potentially decent series here, but a good musical this is not.
Directed by Ross R. Shuman
Written by John Ross Bowie and Kevin Sussman
Dark Minions is a stop motion animated series that follows two underlings employed by an intergalactic bully of an empire. At the beginning of the pilot, the creators kindly tell the viewers that not enough funds were available to make the whole pilot in stop motion animation, so much of it occurs as voice acting over mostly still sketches. When the stop motion does show up, it looks spot-on. Any distractions that the rest of the animation might provide while watching the pilot quickly fall to wayside as Mel (John Ross Bowie) and Andy (Kevin Sussman) go through their day-to-day, eventually ending up on a planet that their boss plans to destroy. The story here is actually really solid, and these slackers who just aren’t taking their jobs seriously at all (one is only in it to pay for alimony and the other gets high a lot) resonate as characters on a general level. The scenes that don’t involve Mel and Andy – those that focus on the evil leader and his evil plans – are noticeably weaker because of how familiar they are, but the story doesn’t stray away from our loser minions for too long.
Worth a Full-Season Pick-Up: Maybe. The only problem here is viability – will people watch this? Adult-themed animated series are a rare breed outside of Adult Swim, but if Amazon can market this right, then Dark Minions gets a nod, because it’s entertaining and worth watching.
Onion News Empire
Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson
Written by Will Graham and Dan Mirk
Outside of Zombieland, Onion News Empire has been one of the Amazon pilots to have the most discussion surrounding it. Taking its comedy style from the online publication it gets its name from, Onion News Empire has its anchors and other employees hardly working to get the bogus news out there. With the star power of Jeffrey Tambor and Christopher Masterson, Onion News Empire is made more disappointing for not hitting the mark. The jokes are played straight-faced but are ultimately only funny on occasion, and there’s no dimension to these characters whatsoever. The latter issue wouldn’t be that big of a deal were it not for the running time, which is 10 minutes more than the extremely similar Newsreaders that aired its first season earlier this year. With that extra time, Onion News Empire could risk going outside of the studio and getting more personal, like The Newsroom, but it’s a missed opportunity that makes the fast-paced nature of its comedy feel cumbersome about halfway through.
Worth a Full-Season Pick-Up: No. Onion News Empire isn’t quite original or funny enough to invest a full season of viewing in. Tambor fans are best off awaiting the return of Arrested Development.
Directed by Mark Brooks
Written by Lily Sparks, Price Peterson and Ryan Sandoval
If the characters of Aqua Teen Hunger Force were more concerned with partaking in Indiana Jones-style adventures and fighting demons, the result might be something like Supanatural. This animated show features two divas who work at a mall and happen to be experienced in activities of the demon-slaying variety. The pilot’s antagonist is a crystal skull with a sharp tongue and plans to initiate Armageddon. Supanatural is just the right amount of weird. The animation is passable, with some quality effects in the forms of wormholes/portals, and the music – specifically the tune that activates and deactivates the skull – sticks with you long after the pilot is over. Having the mall as a setting also allows for a good variety of recurring and new characters, and the pilot uses some of the other mall employees to devastatingly funny effects.
Worth a Full-Season Pick-Up: Maybe. As with Dark Minions, the issue here is finding the viewers for this. Supanatural occupies a smaller niche but could very well flourish by word of mouth in a cult show kind of way.
Those Who Can’t
Directed by Evan Nix and Adam Nix
Written by Adam Cayton-Holland, Andrew Orvedahl and Ben Roy
“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” as the saying goes. The three teachers of Those Who Can’t can neither do nor teach. Theirs is the fantasy of the teacher who just wishes he could get back at his troublesome students in humiliating, despicable ways. In the pilot, these three guys go on a mission to plant drugs in a student’s locker to get him expelled because of how much of an ass he’s been. The concept behind this show could really work, but the execution – at least in the pilot – doesn’t make for entertaining viewing. It might be that it doesn’t feel like anything’s at stake or that the situations are too unbelievable, but nothing in Those Who Can’t rises about the vaguely humorous.
Worth a Full-Season Pick-Up: No. There’s another version of this show that would do well, but this iteration is full of caricature and doesn’t use the school setting in any interesting way like, say, Community.
Directed by Eli Craig
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Having not seen the film, it’s difficult to take this pilot in context. As a stand-alone episode of a new series, though, this fired on pretty much all cylinders. In post-apocalyptic Zombieland, four survivors (played by Kirk Ward, Tyler Ross, Maiara Walsh and Izabela Vidovic) wander an undead America in search of companions and purpose. The characters aren’t fully realized yet and Columbus’ voiceover is a bit iffy, but the foundation here has a lot of potential to hit that part-comedy-part-drama sweet spot that Parks and Recreation and Louie have mastered with some minor tonal tweaks. If you were a fan of the film with high expectations, the current consensus is that you might be disappointed. But as an anti-The Walking Dead, Zombieland the series could really do some interesting things. The production levels are high, the acting is competent and the relationships between these characters could allow for some emotionally evocative material under the right circumstances.
Worth a Full-Season Pick-Up: Yes. With the crazy success of The Walking Dead, it would be silly not to pick this up. As a comedy that doesn’t have to deal with as much of the bleakness of its AMC cousin, the storytelling could and should end up being the best part of Zombieland.