Are these new pilots from Amazon trash? Of course they are! Here’s a guide.
So, what’s hip in this line of potential programing? Once canceled TV-hands like Steve Dildarian and Amy Sherman-Palladino return with their latest attempts to enthuse audience with binge-worthy hours of spectacle and movie men like James Ponsoldt and Kevin Macdonald try to get into this golden age of TV they’ve been hearing so much about. Three comedies and two hour long dramas and, aside from Ms. Sherman-Palladino’s return to New York fun, it’s an all-boys club of programming. That’s sad. But Robb Stark swings by as a priest in outer space. Decision 2017: you decide.
Legend of Master Legend
If Atlanta were set in Las Vegas, it probably would not be called Las Vegas. That just wouldn’t seem, you know, true. It would probably be called The Legend of Master Legend and it’s not-quite divorced straight man would probably be John Hawkes working the costume circuit on the Strip. Amazon’s marketing wants to tell you that this Master Legend is a hero of sorts, at the crossroads precisely between the raving lunatic that certain folk’ll cross the street to avoid and the kind of guy that John Hawkes normally plays. The hero in grimy armor and all that.
For the purveyor of superhero comedies, The Legend of Master Legend is more Kick-Ass than Deadpool: Hawkes’ interests lay in shouting “ordinary” in your face and not “meta,” which is fine. His Master Legend wears a Dio shirt and informs tourists that he is “a real life super-hero, registered in two counties.” Which might as well be true, I guess: he’s based on some similarly-masked fellow that Joshuah Bearman profiled for Rolling Stone in those feel good days after Obama was elected and we liked to believe in people doing good things for the value of goodness. And like a bear chasing honey, such a real-life tale of sincerity could attract nobody else but Mr. Sincerity himself, James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) on his second tour helming a pilot: he gave an airy touch to “Plan B,” Aziz Ansari’s opener for Netflix’s Master of None.
So, how does Ponsoldt communicate how much we should care? Anjelika Washington’s turn as Master Legend’s daughter with a crush on the local blonde cheerleader (or volleyball team captain or whatever). We’re crushed. It’s great. Having a superhero for a dad might not be as cool as it seems. The point, I know.
The New V.I.P.’s
There’s a moment some people consider witty, in the finale of the first season of HBO’s Silicon Valley, where a bunch of penises are drawn on a board and men have dicks, right? And they have the capacity to draw them crudely, when directed? And penises, right? It’s this kind of barren absence of humor that dogs Steve Dildarian’s attempt to sell an adult animated series to Amazon’s steaming market. The whole peppery joke-a-minute thing that Bojack Horseman does on Netflix only works when, you know, some of them land. Here’s an example: Bud (Matt Braunger) realizes he works in a crummy establishment when they decide to start paying him in Pesos. Because corporate moved to Mexico. Because outsourcing? Because Mexico? Whatever.
Set among the employees of vaguely evil corporation that feels part of the same conglomerate that people seemed to enjoy in Better Off Ted, Dildarian (The Life & Times of Tim) trades in the I’m-so-intelligent-because-I-watch-TV jokes you can find exercised with Jay Leno-like corporate perfection on any Seth MacFarlane production every Sunday night. So, why potentially tune into this piece of flaming mediocrity? Creed Bratton! The elusive and eponymous Office-star voices one of Dildarian’s boring B-characters and manages to give it a few inches of life, doing all he can with a comic pause or two. At least he’s trying.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m cool. I love drugs. Ask anyone on my block and they’ll tell you: Andrew, he’s got the last pack of ‘ludes in lower Manhattan. But do they make great TV, these drugs I use all the time? Last year, we discovered that the hip show about drugs on a hip network (High Maintenance) was garbage and the garbage detective show on a garbage network (Search Party) was hip as hell. What do ya know. Pitifully, the former fate awaits viewers tuning into Budding Prospects, manufactured by the team behind the somewhat-beloved Bad Santa (2003) and adapted from one of those thick ol’ T.C. Boyle novels you think about reading but never do (he’s a poorman’s Pynchon, really). Folly awaits Adam Rose, a lifelong bit-of-a-bit player, who takes the lead as the straight man among of group of dullards populated by Will Sasso and Joel David Moore, the latter’s appeal begins and ends with an uncannily resemblance to Ross from Friends.
You can tell that Budding Prospects takes place in the 80s because Rose observes that Moore’s character “validates the Just Say No-campaign” and a prostitute blames “Reaganomics” for something. Whatever. Infinitely more interesting than any of this is Brett Gelman’s slick huckster and the wonderful Natalie Morales, who should be in all of this. Instead of Morales, we get a lot of boring white guys who smoke pot. “We have nothing to worry about,” Moore glibly says at one point, setting off some kind of Chekov’s gun if I could bring myself to care. Straight white guys in Reagan’s America. What the hell do they have to worry about?
The premise is not particularly boggling: you are called to a strange place by a fella you haven’t seen in years. This dude, you’ve had some kind of spat with in the past, but he needs you now. So, you travel to this faraway space, perhaps as far away as outer space, and when you get there, what-do-you-know, your chum is nowhere to be found. He just left, like, a week ago. In this way, exposition is kept to a tactful minimum and every detail is tantalizing. Stylistically, the pilot for Kevin Macdonald’s Oasis is meant to give us the feeling of early Lost, that first season and a half of not really telling us anything but keeping us on the edge of our seat for a reveal that we knew, in our hearts, was not coming.
Traveling to a faraway (yet breathable) planet and not the northern edges of Westeros, Richard Madden give us a solidly silent performance of male bad-assery. Much like Damon Lindelof and company, Macdonald (Last King of Scotland) knows how to get things moving. We don’t spend very long on poor, suffering Earth: quickly, we are on our way to a far off Oasis. It’s “the city of dreams,” one astronaut says. “More like nightmares,” another whispers under his breath. Science fiction, amirite? Another sci-fi trope: Madden plays a priest of some kind who finds he is needed desperately in a post-theist world, making Oasis feel a little like Book of Eli hiding inside Starship Troopers. A pack of astronauts pause to freak out over a copy of a certain book they haven’t seen in a long, long, time. It isn’t Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
The other big league from a big name, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel comes to us straight from Amy Sherman-Palladino, well-known to most as the creative force behind Gilmore Girls. Accordingly, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the only offering among Amazon’s five pilots to boast a single female protagonist. But what a protagonist! ‘Midge’ Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan, the crying star of the first two seasons of House of Cards) literally takes the stage from the very first shot, narrating the course of her life-so-far, in the midst of delivering her own wedding toast. Gilmore Girl-acolytes will be satisfied to know that Sherman-Palladino returns to her program’s stopping grounds of a well-saturated New York, New York, littered with details like sandwich fixings. More surprising is the calendar: its the late ’50s and, on their first date, her future husband (Michael Zegen) takes our hero to a comedy club and, who do they see but Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) himself, MC’d to the stage by none other than Gilbert Gottfried.
If those two names strike you as a little Jewish, than you’re on to something: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is Sherman-Palladino’s take on that half-century old genre that is the Woody Allen movie. Rabbi jokes abound. Pitched perfectly in between Radio Days (1987) and Café Society (2016), two of Allen’s better period pieces, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is peppered with an hour’s worth of tightly-written asides and eye-rolls. “I should be kissing the brisket,” Midge’s nebbish husband opines to his nebbish wife, after she cooks a brisket good enough to get him a decent time at a Greenwich Village comedy club. Oh, yeah. It’s a struggling comic story, a kind of Jewish-comic origin story, which we realize when Midge gets close enough to a mike after the doofus husband leaves her for the doofus secretary. Sad: their bickering is the best thing about Sherman-Palladino’s latest script. Midge is wonderful, the moment she realizes her husband is a hack is pure tragedy, the only second you will feel anything among these pilots. Midge is the kind of obscenely likable character you normally get in the movies, the kind who cares about the well-being of their doorman.