Whit Stillman’s New TV Show Is Almost As Good As His Old Movies

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Aug. 28 2014 1:50 PM

Whit Stillman’s New TV Show Is Almost As Good As His Old Movies

And Amazon can really do comedy. Drama, on the other hand …

Screenshot courtesy of Amazon
The Cosmopolitans is the best of Amazon’s new batch of pilots.

Screenshot courtesy of Amazon

For the third time now, Amazon is unleashing a new batch of pilots on the public. What started as a kind of cutesy gambit—watch all the shows and vote on which you like best! Pilot season in the hands of the people!—with a bunch of ad hoc, loosey-goosey series (a musical set among interns at an online magazine, for example), has morphed into a more polished bid for seriousness. The latest group of shows, three comedies and two dramas, reflects Amazon’s continued, if not quite yet ascendant, efforts to compete with premium cable and Netflix, the big boys of original programming. Each of the five new series is attached to some sort of established name. First and foremost among these names is Whit Stillman.

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

Stillman’s The Cosmopolitans, one of the comedies, is quintessential Stillman, a spiritual heir to, most especially, his second movie, Barcelona, which was also about American expats in a European city. The Cosmopolitans, in its discursive first episode, introduces Jimmy (Adam Brody, exhibiting disorienting flashes of Chris Eigeman’s unmistakable diction), the lovelorn Hal (Jordan Rountree), and their Italian friend Sandro (Adriano Giannini) as they sit in an outdoor café, chattering about love, loneliness, the propensity of American men to get pushed around by women, and the antics of a friend named Fritz. When Vicky (Chloë Sevigny), who is better-established in Paris, bumps into them at the café, she greets them with an underhanded “You’re still here.” Jimmy replies, all innocence, “We live here. We’re Parisians.” He is still taking French-language classes.

After the tonal misstep that was Damsels in Distress, The Cosmopolitans is a return to form. It’s retro-Stillman—and Stillman has always been pretty retro. As with his first trio of films, the comedy of The Cosmopolitans comes from the obliviousness of its main characters to the humor and the privilege of their situation. They practice a form of deadpan that springs not from knowingness but utter earnestness. Who could possibly joke about young lives and young love in Paris? What could be more serious? When Jimmy comes upon a gorgeous woman at a party (Dree Hemingway), he is so knocked out by what he takes for her French looks that when she says she is from “Vancouver,” he replies, with a thick accent, “Vancouver, France?” And this myopia can border on the monstrous. When Vicky tells a young American girl, Aubrey (Carrie MacLemore), that she couldn’t have come to Paris to hang out with the likes of Jimmy, who is from somewhere like Albuquerque, Aubrey interjects that she’s from Alabama. “It is sad about the Civil War and you all losing so badly,” Vicky says, in apparent seriousness.

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After the café, the characters go to a party, have some more conversation, and some eventually get kicked out. They end up in cab after their semi-failed night, surreptitiously smiling only to themselves: They are young, they are in Paris, everything is an adventure, everything an experience. The show has a dedication to mood that far exceeds an interest in plot or punchlines. And the characters make for a very specific kind of company: They are so literal, so open, so irritating, so adorable, and somehow, whatever their age, so young.

Amazon’s other two comedy pilots, the David Gordon Green-directed period show Red Oaks and the marriage series Really, are not quite as distinct or distinguished. Red Oaks is set on a country club in the ’80s, where David (Craig Roberts), a 20-year-old trying to avoid his father’s wish that he become an accountant, lands a job as a tennis pro. It is very much like an ’80s movie about that fateful summer, with the usual archetypes—the hot lifeguard, the stoner chauffeur, the current girlfriend, the more alluring and mysterious future love interest—all assembled. (Jennifer Grey is even here, as David’s mother.) There are worse ideas for a series. And if David is a bit of a charisma vacuum, the other tennis pro, Nash (Ennis Esmer), a lothario with a pot belly, more than makes up for it.

Really stars series creator, writer, and director Jay Chandrasekhar and Sarah Chalke (Scrubs) as Jed and Lori, a relatively happily married couple with children. If Lori still busts Jed masturbating—a joke that has recently turned the corner into cliché—they have a model relationship, at least compared with their friends’, as the pilot demonstrates with one doozy of a dinner party. Though Chalke and co-star Selma Blair are the most recognizable actors in the ensemble, Really takes the male POV.  The dialogue is decent, and some moments are well-observed. But while it sounds the marriage-is-a-bitter-war-of-the-sexes gong more elegantly than most, it does still ring that particular bell.

All three of the Amazon comedies are, if nothing else, eminently watchable. The same cannot be said of Amazon’s new dramas. Hand of God, directed by Marc Forster (World War Z , Finding Neverland), stars Hell Boy and Sons of Anarchy’s Ron Perlman as corrupt judge Pernell Harris, who, as the show begins, is in the midst of a religious awakening and/or psychotic episode. Then the show piles on the bleakitudes. Pernell’s daughter-in-law was violently raped in front of her husband seven months before. The son has just shot himself in the head; he is, according to the doctors, brain-dead. Pernell, an intimidating fellow who is used to whoring, keeps hearing his son’s voice and having visions, all of them related to tracking down the rapist. He becomes convinced he’s a modern-day Solomon and starts following signs that don’t exist, that other people don’t see, doing exactly as he pleases to find the rapist. Of course, after behaving abhorrently, arrogantly, cruelly, and delusionally, he ends up doing what no one else could. There is, for a bonus, and for no particular dramatic reason, a scene of Andre Royo (best known as The Wire’s Bubbles, he’s the mayor here) receiving a joint from Dana Delaney while he defecates, extremely odoriferously, it’s made clear.

Hysteria claims to be loosely based on events in Le Roy, New York, and it’s a wackier beast altogether. Mena Suvari plays Dr. Logan Harlen, an expert with a dark past, called in to investigate what appears to a case of contagious spasming among teenage girls. Within this pilot, somewhere, is a show as wonderfully ludicrous as FX’s The Strain, but instead we get something exceedingly somber—the show is framed by Harlen’s conversation with a death-row inmate covered in bruises and burns, for starters—about the possibility of a viral video … actually being a virus.

The tedium of Amazon’s dramas is a reminder of the obvious: There is a formula for prestige drama, even if following the formula is not enough to guarantee prestige, let alone quality. Take a tortured protagonist with antihero inclinations and shake with a handful of gritty ingredients. As Amazon tries to catch up to its competition, it is sparing no grit. The prestige comedy, in comparison, is much less formulaic. It encompasses everything from 30 Rock and Parks and Rec to Louie and Veep. You can see that structural freedom in Amazon’s comedy pilots, which, while chasing acclaim, are not limited by the effort to be like everything else.

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