It’s unclear if Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos actually walked into a boardroom with a megaphone to scream “BRING ME MY GAME OF THRONES!” into the ears of his production executives. But a juicy Variety report in September claimed that Amazon’s TV division had a new mission statement: No more tony flappercore style-page prestige pitched at whatever we call fans of Mozart in the Jungle. Farewell, F. Scott Fitzgerald cinematic universe — and hello, maybe, the Lord of the Rings reboot for whatever we call fans of Tom Bombadil.
So it’s hard to know what to make of the new batch of TV shows launched today as part of Amazon’s “pilot season.” Are they a window into the platform’s future — or the last gasp of an old regime that was already trending epic before it was scandalized into extinction? The best news is that they’re all good, and eccentric, and the polar opposite of whatever the executive brain thinks Game of Thrones is. Then again, today’s mainstream is yesterday’s weird fringe, and it’s important to remember that HBO thought their Game of Thrones was Boardwalk Empire. Let’s look at the pilots!
Glenn Close is Bernie, a painfully kind 99-cent store employee who looks nervous about breathing. She lives with her nephew (Jack Quaid) and two nieces (Suburgatory‘s Jane Levy and Rae Gray, who briefly brought a pulse to Fear the Walking Dead as The Girl With The Bong). Both nieces have kids, but they spend all day in front of the TV set. They live in a residential community called “Sea Oak,” advertised on a sign as “A Place to Live!” That might be an overstatement: Gunshots ring out in the night as a regular occurrence.
The gunshots appear at night along with the ice cream truck song. Bernie’s nephew has a curious job, posing in a historical exhibit that’s also a strip club. So it feels like we’re in the world of indieland quirk — Napoleon Dynamite but also sad sometimes — and it doesn’t help that everyone seems to be doing their broadest “working class” accent. There’s a big twist in Sea Oak, though. It’s the whole concept — a wonderful surprise I won’t spoil. The show’s adapted by George Saunders from his own short story, and director Hiro Murai (Atlanta) develops some clever visual strategies for translating Saunders’ banal-surreal prose style. Also, James Van Der Beek is here, and at one point he asks, rhetorically, “Is it sex? Is it history?” B
Love You More
Bridget Everett plays Karen, a mental health care professional. By day, she works at the Jane Berger House, a home for people with Down syndrome. By night, she lives that single life, bars and besties and married Australian waiters and afternoon wine in bed. Everett’s a familiar comedy face who popped up in Lady Dynamite and Inside Amy Schumer, and she co-wrote this pilot, which features raucous full-frontal sexuality, a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend-style musical number, and a full ensemble of actors with Down syndrome (including beloved Ryan Murphy mafiosa Jamie Brewer!).
Everett’s a great screen presence, cheerfully authoritative in the workplace and relatably messy (wine in bed!) everywhere else. There’s a real sweetness running through this show, especially in Karen’s interactions with her roommate Jean (Loni Anderson), a seventysomething widow who likes hashtags. The main pilot plot point is Karen’s search for a bra, which leads to a snooty clerk informing her that she’s a “46EE,” which leads into aforementioned song, a body-positive anthem with a title I, unfortunately, can’t print on this website (but kids, watch her sing it here!) The show’s produced by Michael Patrick King, and like his 2 Broke Girls, it sometimes seems to be substituting broad stereotypes for characters. B+
I started laughing out loud right away at the beginning of this one. Nia (creator Diarra Kilpatrick) tells her friend Misty (Alysha Umphress) about a dream she had, a hilariously specific premonition of giving birth to herself. This conversation leads to the invention of a new word, “repultrigued” (both repulsed and intrigued.) It also leads Nia to a revelation: “I think it means it’s my time, or something.” They’re old friends and worker bees at a company so corporate that Diarra doesn’t even know what their business is. “I want to remain willfully ignorant as an act of defiance,” she declares. Anyhow, she’s got bigger dreams, symbolized by her fandom for Copper Lewinsky (real-life supermodel Jessica White), an Instagram-lebrity superstar with no obvious talent beyond selfdom.
The Climb‘s pilot is, essentially, a sitcom focused mainly on Nia and partially on Misty. They go to work, go to happy hour, have some tangled romantic interactions. But the show captures something mesmerizing in Nia’s internal struggle. “I want to be fulfilled,” she says. Her love interest laughs, says that she’s got white girl problems. “Isn’t that why Martin Luther King died, anyways?” she asks. “So that one day, I could have white girl problems!” That line — and Kilpatrick’s performance — captures the sincerity of Nia’s ambitions and the show’s askew riff on the modern American Dream. It’s hard to know if this balance could continue in a series, but this pilot is a marvel. Director Chris Robinson uses the Detroit setting cleverly: There’s the urban emptiness, yes, but the show’s style is bright and dreamy. One quibble: The pilot spends much of its time establishing Nia’s world, but the climax suggests that the show is already heading in a radical new direction. So I don’t really know where The Climb will go — but I’ll follow. A-