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Amazon pilot reviews: 'The Man in the High Castle' is king

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The Man In The High Castle
David Berg/Amazon Studios

Netflix might’ve kicked off the streaming revolution years ago with House of Cards, but right now, all eyes are on Amazon. Transparent, an original series available through Prime Instant Video, took home a Golden Globe for best comedy last weekend—and on Tuesday, the retailer/studio announced a deal with Woody Allen, who will make his first foray into television with a Prime Instant Video pilot next year. It’s the first time that Amazon has given a showrunner a full season commitment without letting the public vote on whether or not the pilot should be picked up for a full season.

For now, though, you can still watch, rate, and review other pilots: seven new ones are available starting today. Below, critics Jeff Jensen and Melissa Maerz give their feedback on what to watch and what to skip.

The Man in the High Castle

Creator: Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files)

Premise: An alt-history saga adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel of the same title imagines America in a world where the Axis powers won World War II—by beating everyone else to the bomb and nuking Washington D.C. The year is 1962, and the United States is split in two, à la Berlin. The Nazis control the East, the Japanese control the West, and the cold war between the former confederates threatens to explode, pending the outcome of political instability in Germany: Hitler, it seems, has Parkinson’s, and not long to live. Against this backdrop, we meet a variety of characters suffering or surviving each oppressive culture. Two of them in particular—Julianna (Mob City’s Alexa Davalos), investigating the murder of her sister, and Joe (Luke Kleintank of Pretty Little Liars and Bones), a newcomer to the resistance—are on a collision course, drawn to each other by the mystery of illicit newsreels depicting a different, better history, one where the Allies carried the day. The films are rebel art, producing an Anonymous-like subversive known only as “The Man in the High Castle.”

Prospects: Depends. If you’re tired of high-concept dystopian fantasy and Nazi bad guys, this is a pass. If you’re a fan of high-concept dystopian fantasy done right and are at least agnostic about Nazi bad guys, this is for you. Directed by veteran helmer David Semel, this well-cast, well-acted, swell-looking pilot is by far the most polished of the group. It’s engrossing despite its stately pace, and a triumph of world building. The Man in the High Castle could be Amazon’s first successful attempt at big saga TV. —Jeff Jensen

The New Yorker Presents

Creators: Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) executive produced with Dave Snyder (Death Row Stories) and Condé Nast Entertainment president Dawn Ostroff (The Fashion Fund)

Premise: Imagine if The New Yorker were a docuseries, with cartoons, fiction, poems, and reported features translated for the small screen

Prospects: It might be hard to accept that great magazines don’t always make for great television. But that’s the case with this series, which doesn’t quite meet The New Yorker‘s high standards. Director Troy Miller (Arrested Development) adapts a short story by Simon Rich into a short film called “A Conversation Between God and The Man in a Football Helmet and a Speedo Who’s Always Shouting Things Next to the Supermarket,” which is exactly what it sounds like: the story of a crazy man (Brett Gelman) who’s always ranting about End Times on the street, though the twist is that he’s actually being coached by God (Alan Cumming). The premise is great, but the short story is funnier than the movie, which offers a pretty literal interpretation of a wildly imaginative idea. Other segments show artists sketching New Yorker cartoons and Andrew Garfield reading a poem by Matthew Dickman,. Neither adds much creative insight to the final products. Jonathan Demme’s documentary short about Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes fails to capture the paranoid suspense of the Rachel Aviv article it’s based on. Only Ariel Levy’s interview with the artist Marina Abramovic stands on its own. They’ve got real chemistry together, and it’s fun to see them joke about Abramovic’s “Balkan Erotic Epic,” which was inspired by a 14th century practice of flashing one’s genitals at the gods to stop the rain. “Can you imagine the power of the vagina to punish the gods?” asks Marina. Levy’s deadpan response: “That’s a powerful vagina, Marina.” —Melissa Maerz

Salem Rogers

Creators:Will Graham (Onion News Network) and Lindsey Stoddart (a newcomer whose script for this pilot came out of Amazon’s open screenplay submission process)

Premise: An all-kinds-of-toxic supermodel (Leslie Bibb) is driven out of rehab by exasperated doctors after 10 years of unsuccessful therapy and tries to regain her career and lifestyle in a post-supermodel culture that’s only interested in “starlets and real people.” She’s aided by the mousey assistant (Rachel Dratch) she once routinely abused, now a writer of children’s books specializing in tween uplift.

Prospects: Supermodels and self-help are tired targets for satire, the outrageously narcissistic diva and meek geek archetypes have become easy postures to perform, and absurd-shock laugh lines such as “you’re like the AIDS of people; there’s just no stopping you” have become so formulaic you could probably design a computer program to write them. Yet I can’t deny I laughed a lot throughout Salem Rogers, thanks to Bibb’s all-in turn as the all-wrong titular terror. Dratch feels less committed, but offers nice support, and Harry Hamlin steals the whole thing as Salem’s agent. —JJ

Cocked

Creator: Samuel Baum (Lie To Me)

Premise: Brian Dennehy is the too-proud paterfamilias at the head of a scrappy, family-run gun company at war with a larger rival run by his brother. Jason Lee is his reckless, hedonistic son with a new idea for a scary-ass automatic revolver, and Sam Trammell is the principled good son who risks losing soul when he gets sucked back onto the fold.

Prospects: An edgy contemporary dramedy that takes aim at gun culture? That’s got some bang to it. Yet despite being loaded with stars, attitude, and provocation, Cocked feels a draft or two away from hitting the target; the vision, characterizations and performances aren’t quite there. —JJ

Point of Honor

Creators: Randall Wallace (Braveheart) and Carlton Cuse (Lost)

Premise: It’s North versus South, Yankee brother-in-law (Christopher O’Shea, Baby Daddy) versus Dixie brother-in-law (Nathan Parsons, True Blood), abolitionist versus states’ rights firebrand in this costume drama, set largely on a Virginia plantation at the dawn of the Civil War where a trio of plucky and beautifully-dressed belles try to preserve their well-heeled way of life in the face of social change and catastrophic violence and stuff.

Prospects: That’s a mighty risky thing, asking an audience to buy into a drama that makes heroic protagonists out of a clan of white, wealthy slave owners. Check that: ex-slave owners. The Rhodes family, under the reformist influence of its incredibly enlightened young scion John (Parsons), does quickly renounce that evil practice in the pilot without much in the way of reflection and argument. They make giving up the slaver’s worldview and lifestyle so incredibly easy! But they fight for the Confederacy nonetheless, catalyzed by the belief in self-determination and Virginia’s inherent awesomeness. There’s provocative, complex storytelling to be made of this, but I’m not convinced Point of Honor is the show to do it. There’s a scene where the family releases their slaves and offers to let them stay and work for pay (but doesn’t offer much in the way of apology for years of degradation)—set to the tune of “Amazing Grace”—that is all kinds of white savior queasy. If the perspective and historical flaws don’t alienate you, the bland cast, with their buggy accents and under-produced battle scenes, will. —JJ

Mad Dogs

Creator: Cris Cole

Premise: Based on Cole’s own U.K. series of the same name, this thriller follows four former fraternity brothers (Steve Zahn, Romany Malco, Michael Imperioli, and Ben Chaplin) who visit their old college buddy (Billy Zane) in Belize for a big reunion weekend—until their partying is interrupted by a murder, and a gang comes after them.

Prospects: It’s a drama about aging frat boys, but it wants to be taken as seriously as a drug-gang tour de force like City of God. That might be the biggest problem with Mad Dogs, but it’s not the only one. Zahn does the aging rascal thing well as Cobi, a married financial adviser who dresses too young and likes his mistresses even younger—as we see when he takes home a beautiful local woman from the bar. And Chaplin brings a quiet rage to Joel, whose ex-girlfriend left him for Cobi. But the drug runners are cartoonish (one wears an animal mask that’s more adorable than menacing), and the show’s cultural assumptions about the people of Belize are silly, if not offensive. When Cobi sleeps with the local woman, she screams like a wild-savage stereotype while drums beat in the background. —MM

Down Dog

Creator: Robin Schiff (Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion)

Premise: After coasting through life on good looks and even better weed, Southern California surfer and yoga bum Logan Wood (Josh Casaubon) breaks up with his girlfriend (Paget Brewster) and decides to run the yoga studio where he works.

Prospects: Yoga, Southern California, and surfer dudes: Are there easier targets? You know that there’s going to be at least one “Namaste” joke by the time the credits roll, and Down Dog doesn’t disappoint. It starts out promisingly enough, with a few fun, dumb jokes at the expense of Logan’s burn-out parents (Kris Kristofferson plays his drug-dealer dad) and an arch voiceover that’s just as perplexed by his charmed life as we are. “He wanted a job where he didn’t have to work hard and it didn’t require an education,” we’re informed, as he trains to be a yoga instructor. There’s a certain freshness to hearing a man’s perspective on the New Age world, where shallowness is too often blamed on women; it’s kind of funny to see Logan and his fellow alpha-brahs sit around, saying things like, “I’m on a cleanse, Matteo!” and “I haven’t had red meat since Amanda went vegan.” But when Down Dog plays its hippie affections straight-faced, with candlelit love scenes and earnest speeches about “our higher selves,” it’s embarrassing. Like the worst yoga evangelists, it’s wincingly sincere, and a little too fond of the word “stoked.” —MM

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