Amazon has had a big week. On Sunday night, its breakout series Transparent won two Golden Globes, including one for Best Comedy Series, meaning Amazon walked away from the Globes with more hardware than Netflix, HBO, and all of the major networks. Two days later, the big box store in the cloud announced that it would be making Woody Allen’s first television show, an inarguably high-profile partnership, if also, to some minds, a morally questionable one. Less than a year ago, Amazon had been struggling to even nip at fellow streaming service Netflix’s heels, and here it was, out-winning and out-buzzing it.
On Thursday, Amazon makes its third batch of original pilots available to viewers to taste-test.* The seven new series, a mix of comedies, dramas, and an uncategorizable entry from The New Yorker, put an emphatic end to Amazon’s very good week. They are very bad. Those hoping for the next Transparent need not look here.
Amazon’s best shows so far—a short list that includes Transparent and, far below it, the not nearly as accomplished but still totally cute Mozart in the Jungle, set in New York City’s classical music world—have been half-hour series. (Ostensibly, this makes the shows “comedies,” but really it just makes them 30 minutes.) Amazon’s three new 30-minute offerings are far more palatable than their four new 60-minute ones, but that may just be because they are over faster.
Down Dog, from long-time producer and writer Robin Schiff, tells the story of Logan (Josh Casaubon), a very good looking man, who, born stoned—his mother and father are marijuana dealers who are also heavy users of their own product—has lived out his life in a kind of lackadaisical haze, a super-chill, good natured bro with no ambitions and endless access to eager women. As the show begins he’s a beloved yoga instructor at his girlfriend’s (Paget Brewster) studio; by episode’s end he’s been put in charge of that studio, a small business, and for the first time in his life he may just have to do some work.* Can an eternal man-child finally grow up? Down Dog’s pleasant enough stoner vibe renders this question both inoffensive and inessential: Maybe, but who cares?
Amazon’s other comedy offering, Salem Rogers: Model of the Year 1998, is not stoned but coked out of its mind, and centers on a female character who, in the tradition of Bad Teacher and Young Adult, is intentionally hellacious as well as frequently intoxicated. Leslie Bibb stars as the eponymous former-supermodel, a heinous narcissist who flamed out in the late ’90s. She has spent a decade in rehab, learned absolutely nothing, not even sobriety, and is now unleashed upon the world, and, more specifically, her former assistant and high school bullying target Agatha (Rachel Dratch). The first episode includes multiple incidents of tazing, a naked runway show, references to Jason Priestley (Salem’s former fiancé, in this fictional world) eating her out for the tabloids, and Harry Hamlin, as a modeling agent, snorting Boniva, to help him restore the nasal bones destroyed by all the coke he’s done.*
The dramas are, with one exception, much worse, and come with a noticeably macho slant. Cocked stars Sam Trammell as Richard Paxson, a decent family man who is brought back into his family business by a crisis.* The family business happens to be guns. Richard’s big insight into saving the company is to market to the LBGTQ community. As this plot point suggests, Cocked is a sort of satire that doesn’t actually want to satirize its big subject—gun use in America—but would rather celebrate it and a variety of related butch hijinks. Guns, of course, can help make Richard—stymied at work, controlled by his wife, bringing vegan food home to the kids he won’t let touch firearms—more of a man.
Point of Honor—which Lost’s Carlton Cuse produced—takes a far more serious tone, but is even more misguided. It’s set in 1861 at the start of the Civil War and centers on a rich Virginia family. There are three sisters with heaving bosoms and divided loyalties—one is married to a Yankee—who must take on unexpected responsibilities; and there’s a righteous, noble brother, a West Point candidate who insists upon freeing the family’s slaves even as he readies to fight for Virginia and the Confederacy. You see what they did there? So long as the family frees their slaves, the audience should feel OK sympathizing with them as they fight to maintain slavery. Right? This show is, to put it kindly, total hooey.
On Mad Dogs, meanwhile, four old friends—Ben Chaplin, Michael Imperioli, Romany Malco, and Steve Zahn, a promising cast—head down to Belize to visit Milo (Billy Zane), a pal who has become extremely, shadily rich. The four guys bum around Milo’s villa, poking at each other’s psychological soft spots, and generally enjoying Milo’s largesse—clubbing, drinking, cheating on their wives with much younger local women—even as signs that not all is right in paradise begin to mount: a dead goat in a pool, a stolen yacht, odd behavior from Milo, and, eventually, a very bloody execution. It’s sort of like The Big Chill with murder: A bunch of drifting friends who can’t believe they have reached middle age are forced to confront the disappointments of their life over the course of a few days. In this case, what forces them to confront those issues are … militarized psychos. The show’s flash-forward opening suggests that the men eventually find themselves, in a spiritual or existential sense, by dressing up in war paint and whooping, presumably in imitation of the local native tribes.
Compared to these winners, The Man in the High Castle, based on the Philip K. Dick book and adapted by The X-Files’ Frank Spotnitz, seems downright promising. It’s set in 1962 in an alternate history where the Nazis won the war by nuking D.C. America is divided between the Greater Third Reich, on the East Coast, and the Japanese Pacific States in the West. Two young people, a man and a woman, newly aligned with the resistance, make their ways from New York and San Francisco, respectively, to the neutral zone between the territories, taking with them samizdat film reels that show a version of history in which the Allies won. The premise is gangbusters, but the execution is only so-so; it feels drawn out and muted. Still, I would willingly watch another one, which is more than I can say about any of these other series. The pilot has at least one moment of real creepiness: The young man gets a flat somewhere in the Midwest and is helped by a friendly police officer. When they’ve fixed the tire, ash starts to fall from the sky, and the young man asks what it is. “Oh, it’s Tuesday,” the officer says unbothered. The local hospital “burns cripples and the terminally ill, drags on the state,” on Tuesdays.
The final pilot is The New Yorker Presents, an odd sort of survey show that includes a short fiction film from Alan Cumming, a short documentary from Jonathan Demme about Tyrone Hayes, recently the subject of a New Yorker profile, an interview between Marina Abramović and New Yorker staff-writer Ariel Levy, and a bearded Andrew Garfield reading a poem. All four of these pieces, and especially Demme’s mini-documentary, are capably done, but they feel like supporting materials you would want to come across as bonus content on The New Yorker website, rather than a TV show one would actually seek out to watch in and of itself. Structurally, The New Yorker Presents is not all that different from SNL, Key & Peele, or Inside Amy Schumer, in that it seems designed to have its individual parts broken out and made, fingers crossed, to go viral—in the highest-brow way possible, of course.
Correction, Jan. 16, 2015: Due to an editing error, this article originally misstated that Amazon released their new pilots on Friday. They were released on Thursday. It also misspelled Jason Priestley and Sam Trammell’s last names and Philip K. Dick’s first name. It also misidentified the actress who plays the girlfriend in Down Dog. She is played by Paget Brewster, not Sean Young.