The studio’s next series further establish the studio’s quality.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than three years since Amazon Studios launched its Pilot Season program in April 2013. Transparent creator Jill Soloway and star Jeffrey Tambor won their second consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Directing and Outstanding Acting in a Comedy Series earlier this month. The show’s third season premiered last Friday. Mozart in the Jungle beat out its Amazon sibling (and two other streaming series) for the Golden Globe for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy in January. In February 2014, these were just two of the programs competing to receive a full series pick up in the commerce giant’s second round of Pilot Season.
The experimental process for determining which pilots receive a full season order has created a space to launch series that focus on underrepresented voices. Transparent may have been too big of a risk for a major network, or maybe even for cable behemoths like HBO and FX, a few years ago. With the audience feedback and online ratings provided in the pilot season program, Amazon could justify the production of less traditional, more diverse series. Though television in general has begun to catch up, Amazon’s bold original programming paved the way for other studios to embrace the stories of new hits like Atlanta, Better Things, and Queen Sugar.
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At the same time, Pilot Season established the shows that validated Amazon’s status as a major player in the streaming market. As the amount of services offering television content online continues to explode in the coming years, Amazon will have to maintain the quality of its new offerings if it wishes to grow its share of the streaming market. Earlier today, as Deadline reported, the studio ordered all three of its 8th Pilot Season shows to series. The first episodes of I Love Dick, The Tick, and Jean-Claude Van Johnson must have seen astounding ratings if Amazon is confident enough to order seasons of all three pilots for the first time since the program’s inception. Yet, the question remains: will Amazon’s bold choice result in three quality shows? Despite some concerns I have about extending JCVJ’s premise to a full season length, this order should yield three new sensations for the 2017 television season.
I Love Dick and The Tick are easy pick ups. The former comes from the aforementioned Soloway, whose first work is the centerpiece of the networks slate of content. Based on the bestselling book of the same name, the series focuses on Kathryn Hahn’s Chris Kraus as she avoids her frustration with setbacks in her film-making career by obsessing with the figure at the head of her husband’s newest academic venture. To Chris, Dick is an enticing enigma, a stand in for some of the worst parts of hegemonic masculinity in Kevin Bacon’s body. The pilot, probably the best reviewed of the three entries, only scratches the surface of the book’s examination of the female gaze and other aspects of feminism. With a full season, Soloway and company have the opportunity to present an empathetic, in-depth examination
The latter, though not as attractive to a production company as Soloway’s newest venture, has a mainstream appeal in our overstuffed superhero culture. It gives Amazon a chance to break into the genre without buying the rights for a more expensive property or creating a hero without any established fandom. Plus, the show’s hyper-stylized world offers a take on the character that is more attuned to the source material than any that came before it. It also has a meta tinge appeals to fans of recent favorites like Rick and Morty and Lady Dynamite. Like I Love Dick, The Tick will benefit from a full season of episodes. Series creator Ben Edlund will have the freedom to pay off action scenarios and mysteries only hinted at in the pilot, and the more one-dimensional characters will have room to develop with increased time on the screen.
The real test for Amazon will be a whole season of Jean-Claude Van Johnson. The pilot for the action-comedy about a celebrity actor/superspy retiring from retirement was my favorite of the three from this season. Van Damme, who stars as Agent Johnson, is a staple of bad action cinema and this self-referential take on his previous works plays to his strengths. He plays multiple characters, lets loose a few roundhouse kicks, and has a tumultuous romance with his former agency liaison (Kat Foster). His character even stars in an ass-kicking remake of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer called Huck. The show’s commentary is so specific to Van Damme’s experiences that I was concerned it wouldn’t appeal to mainstream audiences, but its success in the Pilot Season speaks to its popularity on Amazon Prime.
However, stellar pilots do not always translate into stellar shows. The plot in the first episode is formulaic by design, but such a choice can become boring when repeated over the course of many episodes. The same is true of Van Damme’s performance, which alternates between purposefully wooden and surprisingly endearing throughout the pilot. Balancing its parody with a legitimate investment in the characters may prove difficult for series creator Dave Callaham. Furthermore, some of its career referential jokes may grow tiresome if repeated too often in future episodes. To succeed, the series needs to hone its reverence for Van Damme’s prior works and also develop recurring gags based on the hilarious original characters it introduced in episode one. Despite these concerns, the pilot has so many layers of comedy and commentary that I am hopeful for the show’s future. This /Film interview with director and executive producer Peter Atencio is a further testament to the depth of the creators’ vision for the series. The pilot’s astounding success just may carry on to the first season of Jean-Claude Van Johnson.
After almost four years of Pilot Season, Amazon has a lot to show for its efforts. It won six Emmys this year. It has new, acclaimed shows like One Mississippi and Fleabag impressing and attracting audiences every day. As of July, it had 63 million Prime subscribers. Sure, they aren’t all subscribing for television shows, but the sheer volume of customers speaks to the website’s success as a storytelling medium. With the addition of these new series, the future is even more bright.
The first seasons of I Love Dick, The Tick, and Jean-Claude Van Johnson will air in 2017.