Sunday, January 26

Up Next: New Amazon Studios pilots suffer from weak storytelling

"Really," a dramatic comedy, about couples in Chicago, often more potential than other Amazon Studios pilots this fall. (Amazon Studios)

The rise of online original programming has revolutionized the way we consume television. But are any of these new shows actually worth watching? Up Next highlights noteworthy original content from Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Studios and examines how the flexible online format functions within each show. All you need is a laptop and your friend’s Netflix or Amazon Prime password.

Pilot season is in full swing, and critics are already predicting which new shows will flop by December. Like cable television, web television has a pilot season of its own – but with a twist.

Amazon Studios instituted its first pilot season in April 2013 with a simple but clever concept. Instead of investing time and resources in developing a show that may or may not resonate with viewers, Amazon lets viewers decide which shows they would like to see more of through a survey. The company then greenlights the shows with the highest ratings for a complete season.

Now on its third run, the company released five new pilots for the fall: comedies “The Cosmopolitans,” “Red Oaks” and “Really,” and dramas “Hand of God” and “Hysteria.” On Oct. 3, Amazon announced it will greenlight “Hand of God” and “Red Oaks” for a full season.

Amazon’s pilot formula is especially smart for web television because, unlike cable or broadcast networks, viewers do not expect Amazon Studios to churn out a slew of new hit shows each fall. It can thus test the waters before committing to a new series. However, because web television has virtually no censorship and a lesser-known platform, pilot writers often resort to sex, drugs and crass humor to gain greater viewership.

In “Red Oaks,” for example, female extras randomly take off their tops during a round of golf, and in “Really,” the characters’ constant sexual innuendos distract from conversations that could reveal more about their personality and motives.

Although the writers sensationalize the pilots to attract viewers, these elements prevented me from connecting to the shows. Furthermore, by resorting to cheap tricks, the writers forget to focus on storytelling. As a result, the characters lack depth – especially the secondary female characters in “Hand of God” who are aggressively sexual caricatures.

I approached the comedies hoping to find a contender that could redeem the network and cable season’s disappointing comedy pilots such as “A to Z” and “Selfie,” but as a whole, the pilots failed to impress. Looks like network and cable television take this round.

“The Cosmopolitans,” directed by Whit Stillman and starring big names like Chloe Sevigny and Adam Brody, follows the meandering lives of a group of American expatriates in Paris. Initially, the quick dialogue and dark humor made for a dramatic comedy reminiscent of “Girls.” However, like “Girls,” the main characters are primarily white, complain constantly about their first-world problems and lack purpose. The plot of the episode is equally aimless and gives no indication where the series will lead. “The Cosmopolitans,” although aesthetically pleasing, lacks depth.

And so it goes with “Red Oaks.” A coming-of-age comedy set in the 1980s, “Red Oaks” stars Craig Roberts (from the 2010 film “Submarine”) as David, a college student trying to enjoy the freedom of summer before he enters the working world. The show has an impressive production design but suffers from a weak lead and even weaker writing. Although branded a comedy, “Red Oaks” offers few laughs except in the brief scenes involving David’s dysfunctional parents, played by Jennifer Grey and Richard Kind.

In comparison to its mediocre peers, “Really,” a dramatic comedy on a group of 30-something couples in Chicago and starring Jay Chandrasekhar, has the most potential. Sure, like all Amazon Studios pilots, the show is heavy on sexual innuendos and light on plot, but its characters are complex enough to merit at least a second episode. Raw and uncomfortable at times, the show explores the serious undertones of marriage and adulthood, but its lighter moments give “Really” a balance between laughter and discomfort.

Both “Hand of God” and “Hysteria,” however, fall prey to the same weaknesses as the other pilots.

“Hand of God” follows a corrupt judge (Ron Perlman) who suffers a breakdown and claims God is compelling him to assert vigilante justice. “Hand of God” offers fresh directing and a decent crop of actors, including Dana Delany and Andre Royo, but writer Ben Watkins struggles to develop the characters and the overarching plot. Consequently, the characters are depraved, lack clear motives and suffer from pseudo-philosophical dialogue.

“Hysteria,” though, may be the worst of all. The show stars Mena Suvari as a doctor investigating a mysterious epidemic among teenage girls that seems to spread through social media. Such a ludicrous premise can only take the show so far, and the writers harm their efforts further with their preachy critique of social networking sites. At least Suvari delivers a decent performance as Dr. Logan Harlen.

Perhaps, as a newcomer to original programming, Amazon Studios is still trying to find its footing, but the company would be wise to depend less on style and more on substance.

– Savannah Tate

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on Reddit

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.