Amazon’s new pilot season is upon and the line-up is as diverse as ever, from low-key, downbeat comedy to ambitious, epic sci-fi. The TV episodes are available for anyone to watch for free, with Amazon using audience feedback and scores to help decide which to commission as full series.
Which ones are worth checking out? Here’s our verdict on each of Amazon’s 2017 pilots:
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Every now and then, a TV show comes along that puts a huge smile on your face. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is one of them. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, the pilot is full of rapid one-liners worthy of the Gilmore Girls – and leaves you wanting more.
We first meet Mrs. Maisel, or “Midge”, on her wedding day, and it’s immediately clear that she’s no ordinary housewife. Halfway through the reception, she seizes the mic and delivers her own speech – a funny, rambling, show-stopping address. It’s impossible to look anywhere else; even the screen, which starts completely blank, can’t resist turning on to show her centre-frame in her full, vibrant brilliance.
Rachel Brosnahan, who stole scenes in House of Cards for several seasons, steps up to the plate with all the zeal of a star leading lady and knocks it out of the park. She’s bubbly, sharp, frank and doesn’t stop for a second, whether she’s waltzing into a bakery, charming the elevator man or tolerating her husband, Joel (Michael Zegen), who’s trying (and failing) to be a stand-up comic. “I’m not happy,” he tells her. “Nobody’s happy,” she fires back. “It’s Yom Kippur.”
Amy Sherman-Palladino doesn’t shy away from her character’s Jewish heritage (Tony Shalhoub enjoys chewing the scenery as her dad), nor from the 1950s period – from the dialogue to the stylish backdrop, this embraces cliches with a warmth and wit that immediately excuses them, even explicitly tipping a hat to Mad Men as it breezes along.
It’s a busy opener, but one that’s effortless to keep up with; in only 60 minutes, Midge has already been given the nudge by life into the Greenwich Village spotlight by herself, and she emerges as the real comedy talent in her marriage. The result is a hilarious and uplifting tale of a woman finding her own identity outside of marriage. The title may be The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but the emphasis is firmly on “marvelous”. We can’t wait to see a full season – Amazon would be foolish not to order more immediately.
Watch the pilot for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
The Legend of Master Legend
From Transparent to Red Oaks, Amazon’s original TV shows often have the feel of indie movies, and The Legend of Master Legend is their most indie movie TV show yet. Based on the true story of a homemade superhero in Las Vegas, it follows Frank Lafound, or, as he likes to be known, Master Legend, who spends his days running around Nevada trying to stop people doing bad things. John Hawkes plays the defender of morals and justice with the kind of energetic conviction you’d expect from a vigilante, but this is no Marvel adventure: this is a downbeat, low-key superhero story, laced with quiet tragedy. When he’s not in his costume, he’s an estranged husband and father who lives in a garage, and John Hawkes is as melancholic as he is funny and intense. It’s a treat to see Hawkes in leading man mode, especially in a story that is so unusual. Director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, Smashed) brings a sincerity and intimacy to events, turning anything that could resemble exciting action into awkward encounters, while still giving us a glimpse into the animated, hopeful perspective of our confused hero. An antidote to the comic book blockbusters that dominate multiplexes, Master Legend may be a sadly ironic title, but this is a legend worth telling.
Watch the pilot for The Legend of Master Legend
Amazon tackles the stoner comedy genre with what is literally a stoner comedy, as we follow a trio of city boys deciding to leave San Francisco to grow pot. While Brett Gelman is typically good as the man behind the vegetative venture, the rest of the characters fail to really engage or intrigue, as the comedy spends so long setting up its plot that it seems to forget the comedy. There’s potential for an unassuming piece of entertainment over several hours, and director Terry Zwigoff captures the laidback 1980s with a likeable enough vibe, but this slow-moving hour is unlikely to leave you wanting to light up a second time.
Watch the pilot for Budding Prospects
The New V.I.P.’s
Adult animation was once a surprising, shocking addition to our TV screens. Years after South Park and King of the Hill, though, they’re increasingly common – and that means that each new contender has to do more to stand out. And so, hot on the heels of Netflix’s Pacific Heat, we get The New VIPs, a show that manages the same feat of making you wish you were watching Archer instead. Steve Dildarian’s story, which follows a group of low-level employees who bumble their way to the top of the corporate ladder after they accidentally murder their boss, delivers several shame-faced giggled in its opening 30 minutes – and the cast, including Matt Braunger (Agent Carter), Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation), Missi Pyle (Gone Girl) and Jonathan Adams (Last Man Standing), sink their teeth into the nastiness with relish – but for all the absurd, unexpected outbursts, the novelty rudeness starts to wear off. Surprising and shocking? Sometimes. Original? Sadly not.
Watch the pilot for The New VIPs
“You are capable of things you can’t even imagine.” That’s the blessing given to Peter (Richard Madden) by his wife, as he is sent into space to help establish a colony on another planet. Imagine is certainly something that writer Matt Charman (Bridge of Spies) and director Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) have no trouble doing: within an hour, Oasis (based on Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things) has not only established a believable dystopian near-future on Earth, but also built a fully convincing universe around its off-world colony.
Solaris meets Battlestar Galactica, the script is full of familiar sci-fi exchanges and details – “Dinner is Turkey Surprise.” “What’s the surprise?” “It’s not turkey.” – and they zip out of the cast’s mouths with all the class of a polished blockbuster. There’s Game of Thrones’ Mark Addy as the gruff, friendly Halloran, Anil Kapoor as Vikram, the officer reluctantly taking charge of the Oasis base, Haley Joel Osment as an oddball crew member Sy… and what of Peter? Richard Madden is superb as the man of the cloth out of his depth, as clueless about why he’s there as everyone else is. But disappearances, deaths and hallucinations promise fascinating mysteries to be unmasked, resulting in an intriguing study of faith, humanity and all the other big words you want from a big budget epic.
And make no mistake: this is epic stuff. Co-produced by Left Bank Productions, who most recently gave us The Crown on Netflix, this is a gargantuan British project that has no end of ambition and looks confident enough to achieve them – right down to the opening credits, accompanied by Rag’n’Bone Man’s Human, everything about this screams “your new favourite sci-fi series”. Between The Man in the High Castle and this, you believe that Amazon Studios really is capable of things you can’t imagine. More please.
Watch the pilot for Oasis