Ranking Amazon's Newest TV Pilots (2015)
Watching the seven drama and comedy pilots vying to become the next Amazon Original Series in its latest season, the main question I’m left asking myself is how one of them — Point of Honor — got the green light in the first place.
But let’s focus first on the six that are worthy of your time:
1. The Man in the High Castle is deservedly receiving much of the praise from this new crop of pilots. An adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel with Ridley Scott as executive producer, the series depicts a U.S. if the Allied Powers hadn’t won World War II. The east goes to the Nazis; the west, to Japan; the middle as a “neutral zone.” One of the more unnerving dystopias to be brought to any size screen lately, High Castle is terrifying because unlike some stories, such as Divergent, it isn’t far-fetched. What if we had lost the war? Scott and director David Semel present this terrifying world in bleak tones. It helps they have the novel to pull from, but this America is so well-realized, it is both fascinating and painful to watch. The stars — notably Alexa Davalos and Rufus Sewell (as a snarling Nazi) — deliver solid performances as well. This story requires at least a full season — make it a miniseries, Amazon.
2. Equally worth a watch is Mad Dogs, from director Charles McDougall and adapted from the UK series of the same name. Ben Chaplin (who will always be That Guy from The Truth About Cats & Dogs) stars in the original and here, now along with Michael Imperioli, Romany Malco, Steven Zahn, and Billy Zane as five longtime friends reuniting at Zane’s private mansion in Belize. One of the best things about this slate of pilots is the stars — although the lack of diversity in casting is troubling — as each series features players who definitely deserve more screen time. This group is no exception, and the rapport of the men is one of the key selling points of Mad Dogs. It oscillates from polite catching up to well-meaning digs to digs that hurt a bit more, that hit closer to the truth: That they are aging, and that like most people, they ended up in lives they didn’t imagine when they were 20 or so. The marketing for this is confusing — don’t be fooled into thinking this is something akin to Wild Hogs or Grown Ups. Mad Dogs quickly takes one dark turn after another and has already raised the what-the-hell-will-happen-now bar high enough, it’d be unfortunate not to see it through.
The New Yorker Presents is, simply, lovely. It is a This American Life episode in video form (which TAL did for two seasons, which I miss), a collection of various features and art that inspire and provoke. The pilot offers a wide range — an interview with performance artist Marina Abramovic; a documentary on the biologist Tyrone Hayes by Jonathan Demme; a sketch from Simon Rich and Alan Cumming; poetry read by Andrew Garfield; and New Yorker cartoons by Emily Flake. The New Yorker Presents, with its crisp graphics and meditative feel, seems more like an HBO series, so if Amazon passes, I hope they would pick up the ball. I can see it airing Sundays paired with Last Week Tonight, the perfect dose of culture to begin your week.
4. Salem Rogers: Model of the Year 1998 is mostly funny yet slightly frustrating, a comedy that could easily flourish with a bit of polish and oversight. Leslie Bibb is impressive as the title character, a former supermodel who is kicked out of rehab after 10 years and expects her life to return to her ’90s glory days with the help of her former assistant-turned-self-help-writer Agatha (Rachel Dratch). Both women are delightful, even when Salem’s off-color humor is more unpleasant than funny, and Dratch’s return to comedy, especially in a role that isn’t something out of an SNL sketch, is long overdue. There’s a bit of a Selfie vibe here; straight-laced mentor does her best to tutor self-obsessed pupil in the ways of being a decent human being, but Salem Rogers lacks Selfie’s heart and spark. It has potential, though, and I’d love to see where it goes.
5. Also in the Has Potential/Love Its Actors file is Cocked, a slightly quirky, certainly different dramedy from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Sam Trammell and Jason Lee star as brothers Richard and Grady Paxson, heirs to a gun company suffering from low sales and fierce competition. Bland yes-man Richard gets roped into helping the wild, drug-using Grady and their father, Wade (Brian Dennehy), save the family business, and mostly, the story works. It’s a little too topical at times, with characters debating gun ownership in the vein of a Fox News interview, but there’s enough tongue-in-cheek delivery to keep the show floating. Lee, as always, is full of charisma, and Laura Fraser (Breaking Bad) does her best with what little she is given to work with. Cocked doesn’t stand up as well as most of the other dramas on the list, but perhaps it is the one that is in most need of a second chance.
6. Down Dog, on the other hand, is pure take-it-or-leave-it, a network-like comedy plus nudity built on a character for whom it is hard to root. Directed by Brad Silberling, Down Dog follows Logan (Josh Casaubon), a beautiful if slightly dim L.A. yoga instructor who has made it into his 40s thanks to good looks and sex appeal. He splits with girlfriend Amanda (Paget Brewster), his business partner, but is determined to take over the studio himself and prove his naysayers (read: everyone) wrong. Some of the bits work, as the yoga scene and its devotees is played for laughs, but ultimately, Down Dog doesn’t have anything interesting to say.
7. This brings us to the Civil War schlock Point of Honor, which is such a gobsmackingly hackneyed amateur hour it’s fascinating. Bad writing, editing, acting, directing, costumes, you name it. With Carlton Cruse (Lost, Bates Motel) as a producer and writer and Randall Wallace (writer of Braveheart, director of We Were Soldiers and Secretariat) as director, you’d expect a show that, while not groundbreaking, would at least present itself on a level above reenactment sequences featured in a History Channel series. Alas, Point of Honor makes The Man in the Iron Mask, which Wallace also directed, look like Citizen Kane.
Point of Honor is worthy of your time only if you plan to use it as the basis for a drinking game. One shot for every period-inappropriate dress the tan, drinking, smoking, swearing, sleeping-around Southern aristocratic women wear. Two shots if both of my grandmothers roll out of their graves and appear before to tell you how inaccurate it is, only to get a glimpse of these belles and quickly faint back into the ever after. Three shots for every time a black actor, playing a slave, appears, because it’s not near often enough. The slaves play second-fiddle to the main story, which is of a Virginian family beginning to tear apart as the war begins, and you’ll want to take four shots at least when the eldest brother of the clan, John Rhodes (Nathan Parsons, True Blood, The Originals), decides to denounce slavery, free the family’s slaves, yet still fight for the Confederacy. Better yet: Take 10 shots. Nope, 20. Now you’re incapacitated/dead and don’t have to watch any more.
Little to nothing about the Civil War is easy, and one of the best ways to try to understand the American South as it is now is to study not only the war but Reconstruction. But half-hearted, unintelligent and offensive fare such as Point of Honor isn’t doing anyone, not to mention the discussion of race in America itself, any favors. It is unhelpful.
Stick with the top six of the list. Happy viewing.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.