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Amazon pilots: EW reviews

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Amazon

Your annual opportunity to play TV network exec is here: Amazon has released its latest batch of pilots for you to review and rate. This year’s offerings range from a semi-autobiographical sitcom starring Tig Notaro to a hard-to-classify dramedy about a mopey spy who really wants to be a folk singer. There’s a bloody Western, a period biopic, and a Red Hot Chili Pepper in the mix, too. Amazon’s pilot season process isn’t perfect, though at least once, it has yielded pefection: the groundbreaking, Emmy-winning Transparent. Later this month will see the debut of The Man in the High Castle, a high-concept, alt-history drama, and having seen the first six epispdes, we can assure you that your vote was well cast: It’s very good. (You’ll get our full review next week.) Here’s our assessment of Amazon’s new stuff, beginning with a show that ranks among the most compelling pilots Amazon has yet produced:

One Mississippi

So, you think you’ve seen everything you need to see about Tig Notaro? You’ve listened to her famous stand-up special, Tig Notaro: Live, which Louis CK described as one of the “truly great masterful stand-up sets.” You’ve watched Tig, the Netflix documentary about a traumatic period of her life that led up to that famous set, and you’re eagerly anticipating her forthcoming memoir. Well, please don’t let that stop you from watching the best new Amazon pilot of 2015—maybe even the best one since Transparent—which Notaro co-wrote with Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult). Executive produced by Louis CK, among others, with a pilot directed and executive produced by Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said), One Mississippi stars Notaro as a semi-fictionalized version of herself and follows the comedian as she returns to her childhood hometown of Bay Saint Lucille, Mississippi, to deal with the sudden death of her mother. The cast is fantastic, including Noah Harpster (Transparent) as Tig’s maturity-stunted older brother, Casey Wilson (Happy Endings) as the tone-deaf girlfriend who confuses grief expert Elizabeth Kubler Ross with the Keebler elves, and John Rothman (The Devil Wears Prada) as the cold step-father who leaves Tig’s mother while she’s actively dying, just so that he can feed the cat. The dry-as-dust sense of humor matches the voice of Notaro’s stand-up while also allowing the emotional moments to hit even harder than a purely sentimental scene might. Notaro and Cody really earn their laughs, even when they’re joking about the double mastectomy the comedian went through during this intense period of grief. (“Where do you think your boobs are… did they just throw ‘em in a trashcan?” her girlfriend asks. “I hope so,” Tig deadpans. “Recycling was out of the question.”) But it’s the sad moments that stick with you. “Every day from now on will be smaller,” Tig says, thinking about her mother’s death. “The town’s smaller. I’m smaller.” Somehow, though, she makes this small, dark comedy feel like something big. Grade: A Melissa Maerz

Highston

The fact that Highston was directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) should ensure that it comes with a warning label: Do Not Watch If You’re Allergic to Quirkiness. Luckily, though, this half-hour comedy is also incredibly charming, with a premise that’s so well-designed to goose stand-out performances from celebrities, it’s surprising that no one has ever thought of it before. Highston Liggetts (Lewis Pullman) is a 19-year-old kid who only hangs out with his imaginary friends, including Flea and Shaquille O’Neal (both of whom star in the pilot). It’s a great excuse to gawk at famous people who’ve been forced into ordinary, awkward situations, like when Flea and Shaq coach Highston through a tense phone call at a collection agency. And it’s fun to see rock stars and athletes poke fun at their own images. When Highston asks Flea where all matter in the universe comes from, the hippie-punk bassist shrugs, offering, “I wouldn’t rule out divine magic.” But the show’s real pleasures transcend the original gimmick. Showrunner Bob Nelson (Nebraska) has a gift for writing dialogue for simple-minded folks like Highston’s parents (played with expert cluelessness by Mary Lynn Rajskub and Chris Parnell) and his crazy Uncle Billy (Curtis Armstrong), a man who enjoys debating whether horses would ride humans if they could. And Highston‘s portrait of the claustrophobia-inducing suburbs is so spot-on, right down to the seasick shade of green on Uncle Billy’s armchair, it’s easy to understand why Highston needs such an extreme form of escape. Grade: B+ (MM)

Good Girls Revolt

Inspired by Lynn Povich’s non-fiction book of the same name, which chronicled the landmark sexual discrimination suit at Newsweek, this 1960s drama from Dana Calvo (Made in Jersey) is for anyone who ever wished that Mad Men was only about Joan and Peggy. It follows female researchers at the (fictional) News of the Week, where the women do the bulk of the reporting even though the men get all the bylines. Just watching a veteran researcher give the newbie a tour of the office, complete with real-talk descriptions of men’s and women’s roles, will trigger flashbacks to the secretaries’ orientation at Sterling Cooper. Good Girls‘ best scenes find characters like Patti (Genevieve Angelson) and Jane (Anna Camp) plotting subtle ways to work around the magazine’s outdated gender politics, or celebrating small triumphs. Too much of the story plays like a generic TimeLife survey of the 1960s, between the obvious music choices (Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vida”), the expository dialogue (“They’re not orgies, they’re love-ins!”) and the broad historical cues taken from the Counter-Culture Checklist. (Does a straight-laced man smoke pot for the first time? Check. Do women attend a feminist consciousness-raising meeting? Check.) But there’s a certain thrill in watching these female journalists fight to make a name for themselves, especially since one of those names happens to be Nora Ephron. (She’s played by Grace Gummer here.) Grade: B+ (MM)

Z: the Beginning of Everything

Zelda Fitzgerald is now mostly known as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife and a cautionary tale about mental illness. That’s sad, because she was so much more than that, including a talented writer who enraged Hemingway and the original flapper of the Jazz Age. Thanks to books like Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Therese Ann Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, pop culture is now reevaluating Fitzgerald as an icon in her own right, and this biographical miniseries does its best to deepen her legend. Adapted from the Fowler book by Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin (The Killing), Z finds Christina Ricci projecting the wild charisma of this Southern belle during her pre-fame years in Montgomery, Alabama, when she was apparently busy scandalizing her conservative father (David Strathairn), skinny dipping with her girlfriends, and inquiring about very short dresses in shops. Asked by a perspective beau if she will wait for him while he fights in the war, she bats her eyelashes and purrs, “I don’t wait for anyone.”  Too bad that most of the pilot is mostly just a standard Southern romance, one that trades in truisms about small towns that are “obsessed with the past.” There’s a glimpse of something more at the end, when Zelda finally meets Scott at a dance, no doubt sensing that he could be her ticket out of this place. But since Amazon viewers only have this one half-hour episode to judge whether Z is worth green-lighting for a whole series, Ricci’s Zelda may never get the chance to travel beyond Alabama’s state lines, much less jet off to Cote D’Azur. Grade: B- (MM)

Edge

Max Martini (Revenge, Crisis) is Josiah Hedge, aka Edge, a Civil War vet (Union side) and mournful killing machine out to avenge the murder of his brother by the former members of his squad, a dastardly band of dude bros who dig pumped-up kicks and chase get-rich schemes. The first stop on his vendetta quest takes him to a town called Hate, where a corrupt sheriff named Big Bill searches for lost gold belonging to slaves traveling the underground railroad. Adapted from George G. Gilman book series by screenwriter-director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang; Iron Man 3), this Oater-fied John Wick aims to be Tarantinoesque entertainment, an outrageous pulp serial full of over-the-top violence and wanton irreverence, yet grounded with just enough emotional sincerity and social conscience to be respectable.  It gets the gore down. Blood spurts, fingers fly, heads pop, bodies burn. Everything else falls flat. The production values lack true grit, the storytelling lacks style or wit. It’s like Black doesn’t know how to stage or frame the material for maximum fun, or didn’t have time to figure it out. Or maybe he just spent too much time on the blood spurts. The actors fail to engage. Martini is all Sean Bean-y grimaces, scraggily hair, and humorless quips. A hunky hairy biker on horseback. If that jangles your spurs, well giddy-up then, I guess. Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck, Dexter) plays a femme fatale who has to say things like “Thanks, I can grease my own axle.” There’s  a way to make that line work. She can’t. The pilot, for the most part, is cheap and loud slog, but a few moments are inspired in concept, if not in execution. At one point, one of Edge’s targets literally sprints to the gallows, hoping to get hung before suffering a more painful death at Edge’s hands. That’s funny. An epilogue suggests a series in which Edge’s chief nemesis (Ryan Kwanten) tries to reignite the Civil War by brokering an alliance between wealthy Southerners who want their independence back and Apache warriors who want their land back. That’s a rather large and lunatic idea that could provoke and entertain if handled well. Unfortunately, the pilot gives you no reason to believe that Edge has edge enough to pull it off. Grade: C- Jeff Jensen

PATRIOT

A darkly comic spy-fi – and family – dramedy about a melancholy, PTSD-rattled spook, the pilot for Patriot is a uniquely winning creation of screenwriter Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), whose storytelling voice can be likened to that of the Coen brothers, but with a slightly more sentimental tenor. Aussie actor Michael Dorman is fantastic as John Tavner, a covert operative who specializes in “non-official cover” assignments (running missions while working in private sector jobs), and as we meet him, he’s trying to land a position with a Milwaukee piping company that’ll allow him to get into Iran and subvert an election. He’d much rather be home, re-connecting with his humanity by making love to the wife (Kathleen Munroe) he adores or playing Frisbee with his father (Lost’s Terry O’Quinn), who also just happens to be his State Department showrunner. The pilot had me from the moment O’Quinn – in a strong turn that credibly blends tender dad and tough spy boss – explains to his superior that his son seems to be going through a rough patch that’s expressing itself in a peculiar way: He’s decided to become a folk singer, prone to vulnerable, confessional lyrics full of raw, vulnerable and highly classified TMI. The stylish pilot is loaded with hilariously absurd sequences, like when our dope-smoking hero brazenly asks a guy in a bathroom to lend him urine so he can pass a drug test, or when he has to steal back a sack of money he needs for his black op from Brazilian wrestlers. The colorful characters keep coming. Michael Chernus plays John’s loving older brother, a doughy congressman who’s juggling clandestine projects of his own, like mentoring a kid who might actually be his son. Late in the pilot, a Luxembourg homicide detective named Agathe Albans (Aliette Opheim) shows up to begin investigating a murder John has committed in the line of duty, and in just a few scenes, she threatens to steal the whole show. My fellow Amazonian citizens, will you please join me in casting a vote for Patriot? I’d love to see what it can do with a full term. GRADE: A (JJ)

 

 

 

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