Amazon’s pilot seasons allow consumers to vote for their pleasure. This year presents them with two drama options that represent something of a taste test challenge. Do you like the show with the hard-to-love modern antihero, or the show with the easy-to-love old fashioned hero? Both? Neither? You could see them as subjects in an experiment interrogating a quality of dubious significance, a “likable” protagonist. Or not! My framework is flawed. As a measure of anything, it’s vulnerable to lousy biases of all sorts, including my own. Allow to me tamper your assessments by offering by own.
A woman seeking an “interesting” life — or just figuring out what an “interesting life” should be — could be a compelling investigation for a television series. But this unfocused and unappealing adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s 2013 novel doesn’t flatter the project. Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) plays Jules, an unhappily married psychiatrist who grieves the busted idealism of her childhood. When she was a teenager, Jules was an aspiring actress and the junior member of a cool clique of older kids at a summer camp for artists. They were hormonally charged budding bohemians that spent the gauzy sunshine days practicing their crafts — ballet, music, cartooning — and acting like they owned the place. They spent those endless summer nights talking about Anais Nin, Gunter Grass, and changing the world with their brilliance, usually while smoking pot and grabbing ass. They called themselves “The Interestings.” I guess “Dead Poets Society” was already taken.
When Jules and company all grew up, most of them remained tight, but not all of their dreams panned out. Jules abandoned hers altogether. The severe criticism of a toxic acting teacher may have had something to do with it. Whatever the explanation, she became somewhat toxic herself. She’s a shrink of dubious merit. One patient is desperate to break up with her. She’s stuck in an ambivalent marriage to Dennis (Gabriel Ebert), a f— buddy-turned-mismatched husband struggling with depression and self-loathing. Jules’ clear disdain for his interests — he knows sports, doesn’t know David Hockney —probably hasn’t helped his self-esteem all that much. You get the sense Jules knows this and feels moderately terrible about it.
Her other friends may or may not be all that happier. One of them, an animator named Ethan (David Krumholtz of The Good Wife and Numb3rs), turned a counter culture cartoon into an pop empire (think Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons). He’s also a philanthropist and has a seemingly sound marriage to Jules’ BFF, Ash (Jessica Paré of Mad Men), a theater director, but you get the sense that Jules was the one who got away for him. There’s some small mystery concerning Ash’s brother, Goodman (Sleepy Hollow’s Matt Barr): the charismatic golden boy did something bad back in the day and he’s been on the run from the law ever since.
There are other characters, too, but they get lost or just don’t pop in the course of the all-over-the-place pilot directed by versatile British helmer Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral; Donnie Brasco; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). It’s a good-looking production that effectively evokes a variety of time periods with period wardrobe, props, and music cues. But Newell and writers Lyn Greene and Richard Levine (Masters of Sex, Nip/Tuck) fail to find a distinct point of view on Wolitzer’s story or translate the author’s gracious, insightful understanding of her characters into dramatic or visual language. An aggressive non-linear structure pings among different years between the 70s and 90s, creating a haze of confusion regarding the evolution of character and relationships.
Another major blunder is the presentation of the summer camp days that haunts the adult characters. The young actors try too hard to manufacture chemistry and the writing is too blunt about establishing character; the precipitant is bogusness. The kids are such broad, bland archetypes of adolescent romanticism, they foreshadow their own fall. They’re so damn precocious and pretentious, they even make you want it. Does the show love these developing people or mocking them? If the latter: why? The show is interested in themes like the betrayal of youthful ideals or the compromises of adulthood, but expresses them with trite, dusty tensions — artistic integrity vs. “selling out,” a “regular life” vs. an exceptional one. Perhaps if the show didn’t jump around so much, it could dig more into the characters during any one time period, letting their meanings and the show themes reveal themselves more organically and with greater originality.
Jules, the show’s center, suffers the most. Ambrose — an actor I will watch in anything — brings admirable energy to the role, but her character is a poorly realized construction of disillusionment and self-loathing. I suspect the make-it/break-it element for most people will be her fraught relationship with her husband. We see her treating him abominably during their dating days. We see her supporting him poorly in the show’s present, which finds him struggling with depression. To be fair, they have other issues, and their enmity isn’t unusual. Watching them try to save their marriage, or not, or deconstruct and reconstruct into a different, better people and a different, better kind of kind friendship or partnership could be a worthy endeavor. Unfortunately, the pilot isn’t good enough to make me care enough to vote for it. Grade: C-
The Last Tycoon
Matt Bomer, handsome and charismatic, looks so much like an archetypal old-fashioned movie star that he almost doesn’t make sense in color. Whenever I see him on TV, I want to adjust the settings to black and white. He’s a perfect fit for this latest adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel, a period tale of a haunted and hard-driving movie studio exec in the golden age of Hollywood.
As embodied by Bomer and reimagined by screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), Monroe Stahr is almost impossible to dislike. He’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy of a Hollywood suit – a younger, sexier, more idealistic cousin to Josh Brolin’s character in the Coen brothers’ flick Hail, Caesar! He’s obsessed with artistic integrity and making quality pictures, much to the chagrin of his profit-driven, tail-chasing studio mogul boss, Pat Brady (a very good Kelsey Grammer). He relentlessly pushes screenwriters to create better scripts, driving them nuts but commanding their respect, too. He insists on keeping things purely professional with the secretaries and starlets in his employ, much to the frustration of Pat’s college-aged daughter Cecilia (Lily Collins), who both openly pines for him and is determined to work for him as a producer. Monroe presents as a La La Land Don Draper, but with his self-sabotaging demons under control.
But wait! There’s more to love about Stahr! In addition to an impeccable sense of style, he rocks a winsome widower look, too. As we find him one year after the death of his wife Minnie, Stahr still carries a torch for the late actress. He’s even making a film about her: a romantic biopic written by her brother that focuses on her immigrant success story. The real world has become so painful for Stahr, he only allows himself to feel while alone in the dark, watching Minnie’s films. Geeze! Could the show gild Stahr’s “likable” lily any more? (Actually, yes, but spoilers.)
Is Stahr too good to be true? The Last Tycoon constantly suggests the question with its story, aesthetic, and themes, which emphasize false facades and the collision of fantasy and gritty reality. (An ongoing subplot involves Boss Brady trying to figure out what to do about a Hooverville — a Depression-era homeless encampment — squatting on unused land adjacent and within view of his studio’s enchanted backlot.)
What I found most appealing about The Last Tycoon is the prospect of seeing if Stahr can succeed at playing the artist-businessman hero and if he can fulfill his desire of making movies that are meaningful to him and to all of America — an ambition that resonates in the here and now, amid calls for greater diversity in representation both in front of the camera and behind it. “You owe that kid in the street,” Stahr tells Brady while exhorting to make movies relevant to the experience of immigrants and disenfranchised others. “He made you rich.” In one ongoing storyline, Stahr, who is Jewish, has to deal with a complication of making films that don’t offend the toxic ideology and bigotries of Nazi Germany, the studio’s second biggest market.
By pilot’s end, a storyline emerges involving the making of a highly allegorical thriller. It promises to allow Ray and his collaborators to explore how old Hollywood was often forced to work from within a proverbial closet, exploring and expressing taboo subjects — from the political to the sexual — in metaphorical or subversive ways. I want to see how it turns out. The characters are finely drawn, the relationships are clear, the conflicts are interesting, and most of all, Bomer is fantastic and magnetic. He beguiles you and pulls you through a twisty story that culminates with a juicy cliffhanger. The Last Tycoon pilot is very good at what it wants to be and left me wanting more. I hope I haven’t seen the last of it. Grade: B+