Our TV staff's takes on Amy Sherman-Palladino's 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel', 'Oasis,' 'The New V.I.P.'s', and more
Amazon pilot season is here again, which means it’s time for you to help the streaming service decide which shows to order to full season by rating and reviewing their pilots. As always, this year’s batch of series premieres are rather eclectic and includes a period piece from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, an intriguing sci-fi show from the Bridge of Spies creator, Amazon‘s first adult animated comedy, a superhero series, and a pot comedy — yes, a pot comedy. We’ve decided to make your lives easier by watching and reviewing all five pilots to help you decide which ones are worth your time:
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
The exceedingly charming pilot for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is an Amy Sherman-Palladino joint through and through, featuring rapid-fire dialogue peppered with pop culture references and eccentric, endearing characters. Set in the 1950s, the potential series stars House of Cards‘ Rachel Brosnahan as the titular Miriam “Midge” Maisel, the perfect housewife with two children, an Upper West Side apartment, and a husband she loves with all of her being. Naturally, all of that perfect comes crashing down, and in the wake of her life falling apart, she surprises herself by diving into stand-up comedy.
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With stories like these, we expect the protagonist to be an agent of change, determined to pave the way in a male-dominated field; however, the pilot surprises by diverging from this arc. Midge loved her life and wasn’t looking to change anything. It’s not until she receives a push from bar manager Suzie (Alex Borstein) that she seriously considers giving stand-up a go. There are times when it feels like the pilot suffers from streaming service bloat, but Brosnahan’s brilliant and energetic performance keeps it from sagging and insures that the show doesn’t coast on its very resonant premise of a woman coming back from heartbreak.
You’ll find yourself hooked from the moment you meet the clever and funny Midge in the opening scene, and you’ll spend the next 40 minutes waiting for her to take the stage. The moment she finally does is glorious and well worth the wait — Brosnahan finds both the humor and pathos in the genuinely funny stand-up set. The rest of the cast (including Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle, who play Midge’s oddball parents) and the period design are aces, too. Fingers crossed Amazon orders it to series because I’m very interested in watching Midge’s marvelous journey. Grade: B+
The Legend of Master Legend
Amazon’s new “Pilot Season” is heavy on stuff TV doesn’t need. Superheroes. Dystopian sci-fi. Crude adult animation. At least the superhero thing tries to be different. The Legend of Master Legend is a half-hour dramedy inspired by Joshuah Bearman’s 2008 Rolling Stone article about the real-life Master Legend, a costumed vigilante in Orlando. Writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, both of Amazon’s Transparent, set their story in Las Vegas and introduce a variety of characters and relationships that have true promise. Say this much: their endearingly offbeat work-in-process shows more inspiration in 30 minutes than six hours of the lazy flop that is Marvel’s Iron Fist.
The fantastic John Hawkes, transforming himself into a sinewy, long-haired bird-man, is perfectly cast as the strange and sweet Frank, a Dio-loving tree trimmer by day, a dude who dresses in a silver and black rubber suit, mask and helmet at night to patrol the Vegas strip. He looks likes a crazed Oakland Raiders fan, but a really nice one. He mediates disputes between revelers and taxi cab drivers, hands out goody-bags to the homeless, takes pics with the tourists, and just generally tries to generate goodwill. He’s developed an elaborate personal philosophy for himself, a kind of customized martial arts mysticism that informs a strict moral code that prevents from abusing his celebrity and power to, say, sleep with lonely housewives who dig his wild, taut vibe. “That doesn’t keep me on the path of doing good,” he explains. He chases after the “sight beyond sight” that offers personal enlightenment; he’s working a on “healing touch” that can instantly rehab drug addicts. Or so he’d like to think. There’s nothing too terribly wrong with this guy. Or is there?
The script by Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster suggests a show that’ll have fun with Frank while trying to get behind the mask and explore what makes this do-gooding mad man tick. They’ve given him a number of complex relationships with compelling characters unto themselves, including Frank’s teen daughter, Cody (Anjelika Washington), who is half-black and sweet on a white girl; his worried, struggling ex-wife, Tana (Dawnn Lewis), who’s warily beginning a new romance; and his brother Peanut Head (Shea Whigham), a violent felon just released from the joint.
Reminiscent of writer/director James Gunn’s 2010 indie “realistic” superhero flick Super starring Rainn Wilson but considerably lighter, Master Legend’s pilot suggests a show that is after something deeper than just a gritty take on a goofy premise; It’s a high concept family show about a fragmented clan, interested in modern loneliness, isolation, and the peculiar strategies we develop for connection and significance. The tone isn’t quite there and the pilot is too shaggy to draw certain conclusions. But Hawkes and a fine cast imbue the whole thing with a humanity and casually worn complexity that invites hope that the show can fly above other shows in this genre. Or at least find is own compelling, distinct path. If The Legend of Master Legend can master itself, it could be something super. Grade: B
It’s the future and civilization has devolved into a Children of Men-ish dystopia of wide-spread humanitarian crisis. The rich are really rich, the poor are numerous and desperate, and the Earth is exhausted. But there may or may not be hope somewhere in the stars, on a far-away planet where a team of scientists and engineers are drilling for water and trying to start a colony they’re calling Oasis. Whether it’s for everyone or just those who can afford it is TBD; the cynical assessment of the beleaguered is that Oasis is “a life-raft for the one percent.” But something mysterious is happening on this alien world, something that the team leader believes requires the services of his brother, a chaplain. Cue Mr. Movie Trailer Man’s voice in your head:
They went looking for water.
Instead, they found God.
OR DID THEY???
Oasis comes from playwright and screenwriter Matt Charman (Bridge of Spies), an adaptation of Michel Farber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things. Charman and director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) drawn you into a vibrant world – particularly the mining town/proto-colony on Oasis — on par with the high-grade sci-fi of The Expanse or Incorporated. The storytelling does an excellent job of establishing a sense of place, then working within it to create an increasingly suspenseful experience. The pilot is solid claustrophobic, psychological thriller that keeps threatening to go what’s real/what’s not-crazy a la Solaris, but keeps the show somewhere closer to Outland (to use two movie references that totally date me). The cast is good, led by a scruffy-soulful Richard Madden (Games of Thrones) as the haunted man of god. Mark Addy, Anil Kapoor and Haley Joel Osment make immediate impressions in supporting roles. And yet, while there’s enough emotion to move you (the chaplain has widower baggage), the characters are too thin to capture your imagination for a series, and the metaphysical mysteries and science-versus-faith conflicts are too familiar to be alluring or engrossing. There’s too much intelligence and just enough artfulness on display that I can’t dismiss it, and I can easily see how just one or two more episodes of character development could give me exactly what I need to hook me. Can Oasis find a creative wellspring that can hold me and keep me? Or has TV tapped this kind of mystic-science sci-fi dry? Grade: B-
The New V.I.P.’s
The only thing I love about The New V.I.P.‘s is that I can use its terrible title against it. This is a very idiotic program, and not even a silly fun one. The premise: a quartet of miserable employees at a bland, soul-killing company accidentally murder their horrible boss and try to cover it up with an outrageously implausible scheme that could only make sense or happen in a cartoon, which this happens to be. This is far from a bad idea, and there are moments in the early going that made me think that the show (created by Steve Dildarian of HBO’s The Life & Times of Tim) wants to be something like Mike Judge’s Office Space spliced with How Do We Get Rid Of This Dead Body? dark comedy, like maybe Weekend at Bernie’s meets Shallow Grave or Very Bad Things. But as the dick jokes start piling up over the course of a poorly paced half hour, this aggressively ribald crude ‘toon abandons any pretense of being anything tonally unique in tone or perspective. It’s like everyone said, “Welp, we can’t be interesting, let’s punt to dong.”
The show doesn’t know how to make you laugh in the form it’s taken or with the personalities they’ve created. The animation from Titmouse is dull and the voice cast is just okay, though I spent most of the episode thinking that the lead was a surprisingly unfunny Jason Sudeikis, but it turned out to be a surprisingly unfunny Matt Braunger. Maybe the show would have been better as a live-action sitcom but tamer, a la the dumb comedy of Fox’s Making History. I don’t know. Don’t care, either. Grade: D+
Count Terry Zwigoff among the growing list of filmmakers seeking a new life in whatever “television” is now. Eleven years after the hip indie auteur delivered the underwhelming Art School Confidential, he directs and executive produces this new ‘80s-era marijuana misadventure, adapted from a T.C. Boyle novel. Adam Rose stars as Felix, a recent divorcé adrift in pre-digital San Francisco. His mysterious, vaguely criminal acquaintance Vogelsein (Brett Gelman) gives him an opportunity: Work on a cannabis farm in Mendocino County, make big money, change his life.
A solid ensemble keeps the lo-fi comedy buzzing. Felix’s best friends feel a little bit like algorithmic buddy archetypes, one fast-talking misfit and one aggro-tough misfit, but Joel David Moore and the eternally undervalued Will Sasso bring those characters to life with just enough particularity to suggest some real chemistry. Gelman’s the real standout: His mysterious looming Vogelsein suggests a perfect historical crosspoint between a ‘70s spiritualist cult leader and a Computer Age ask-forgiveness-not-permission Silicontrepeneur. (Conversely, Natalie Morales, late of The Grinder and great in everything, feels wasted as the object of Felix’s affections.)
There’s some real potential in this series, which seems to be aiming somewhere between Apatow-ish comedy and dawn-of-the-Pot-Age drug thriller. (Call it Bro-king Bad.) But Budding Prospects is one of those streaming-era pilots that feels more like an extended prologue. It’s hard to get a feel for this as a series, although a final cliffhanger leaves you genuinely wanting more. Grade: B