Amazon’s summer 2016 pilot season is here, with two adult dramas and six kids’ series available for anyone (including non-Amazon Prime Video subscribers) to stream for free. Audience feedback is then used to choose which pilots get commissioned to become Amazon’s next original shows.
Here’s our verdict on each of them:
“I learned the truth at 17,” sings Janis Ian at the start of The Interestings, as Jules is driven by her mother and sister to a summer camp. ‘Ah, yes,’ you think. ‘It’s going to be one of those TV programmes.’ Then another voice interrupts. “Turn it off!”
It’s a promising start to a drama with real potential. Adapted from Meg Wolitzer’s 2013 New York Times best-seller, the show chronicles the exploits of a gang of artistically-minded teenagers, who crown themselves “The Interestings” during one of their pot-smoking, philosophy-spouting meetings. But rather than stick around in the 1970s, soaking up the period vibe, Lyn Greene and Richard Levine’s script does something far more intriguing – it jumps forward 20 years to the 1990s, when all of those hopes and dreams have been crushed by real life.
“I can’t imagine being with anyone else,” says one, only for us to discover her boyfriend is happily gay and out in 1995. “I never should have married you. You should have trusted your instincts,” says another, bitterly hitched for years.
The cast, led by Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) as wannabe actress Jules (now a social worker), delivers some impressively spiky moments of pathos, as well as the odd wry laugh. There’s a hint of a secret involving the mysterious disappearance of Ash’s brother, Goodman, that might lead to surprising revelations, but it’s mainly the jarring emotional juxtapositions that stick with you. Directed with intimacy by Mike Newell, the series sparks in tiny exchanges, from nerdy Ethan Figman shrugging off rejection or scribbling a witty cartoon to Jules’ seemingly incompatible husband Dennis attempting to bridge the gap between them. The melancholy will need to be balanced out by a lot more warmth, though, if this is to keep going for a whole season.
“Great expectations suck,” sighs Goodman halfway through. If fans of the original book can keep them tempered, there might be something here that really is interesting.
The Last Tycoon
Matt Bomer in a suit. That’s enough reason for some people to tune into anything – and they won’t be disappointed by the pilot for The Last Tycoon.
Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final (unfinished) work, it brings to live the world of 1930s Hollywood, a time when peopled turned to the magic of the movies to escape from the Great Depression.
Bomer swans through the lots and sets as studio golden boy Monroe Stahr, the kind of man whom women fall for and men envy. His pet project? A biopic of his late wife, who came from overseas to live the American Dream. The problem? The Nazis are on the rise – and if the studio wants to sell its films to Germany (Hollywood’s second biggest foreign market), they need to change their works to fit the Third Reich’s philosophy.
Make no mistake: this isn’t a place to come for subtlety. “Everyone who comes close to you pays for it,” Monroe is told, bluntly, while Lily Collins’ idealistic Cecelia Brady (who’s sweet on Monroe) talks openly of fixing her broken beau.
While Billy Ray’s script is desperately on-the-nose in its attempts to be Mad Men, though, the political premise promises more weight to the behind-the-scenes goings-on than the self-indulgent LA shenanigans might suggest – and a final reveal of Monroe’s darker side teases more substance than we initially glimpse on the surface.
But oh, what surface. The period production values pop with colour and style, from the glamorous costumes to the art deco offices. One winding upside down shot of a crashed car helps to elevate the whole episode, while Kelsey Grammar brings solid gruff to the background as Monroe’s disapproving boss. The whole thing really comes to life when the radiant Collins is on screen – together with Bomer, you couldn’t ask for a prettier lead couple. If only they didn’t have to open their mouths.
Little Big Awesome
What on earth? Every now and then, a TV show comes along that leaves you completely bewildered. Little Big Awesome is one of them – and it’s brain-meltingly crazy.
The show stars Lennon, a small kid with a hat, and Gluko, who’s, erm, a giant jelly. Within minutes, though, that will seem perfectly normal, because the series is only just getting started: a trip to Gluko’s grandmother jumps from 2-D cartoon to three-dimensional stop-motion and then to live-action, before combining the whole lot together in a smorgasbord of cats, food, fake product placement and glimpses of outer space. From the pen of Spongebob Squarepants’s Ben Gruber, this is bizarre and beautiful stuff. If Adventure Time wasn’t weird enough for you, this is your new favourite show. “Careful hugging point things. It can hurt really bad,” points out Gluko after one musical sequence. It even teaches your kids important lessons too.
Morris and the Cow
“Maybe clowns aren’t your thing, but that doesn’t mean they’re not cool. Try to keep an open mind.” That’s the takeaway message from this pilot about the misadventures of a young boy and his loyal cow. He’s Morris, a 10-year-old determined to become a cowboy. And he’s Florence, who’s only too happy to accompany Morris to the local rodeo to win the prize of appearing on TV with their favourite movie star. The result isn’t an instant kids’ TV classic, but it’s just oddball enough – watch out for some clowns – to leave a promising impression, thanks to snappy editing, colourful animation from Bob’s Burgers’s Bento Box Entertainment and a likeable voice cast (including Zoe Kravitz and Michael Peña).
Created by Thomas Borowski and Caroline Foley (Rick and Morty), Toasty Tales stars a bunch of marshmallows who live in “Move-Along Adventure Park” and want to find out the ingredient for the world’s most delicious pancakes. The result is a diverting escapade with some silly humour that will raise a smile, but next to Little Big Awesome – Toasty Tales is also written by a Spongebob veteran: Merriwether Williams – this bonkers little treat can’t help but feel surprisingly normal.
The Curious Kitty and Friends
With the world spending so much time watching videos about cats, it’s something of a stroke of genius to come across a series about cats that make videos. Unfortunately, that’s about where the brilliance of The Curious Kitty and Friends stops.
The animated show, aimed at preschool audiences, follows Komaneko, who likes making her own movies with her friends. In this first episode, she uses that directorial drive to help draw a shy newcomer out of her shell. Watching them watch a film is a wonderfully meta moment, but despite its nifty premise (and Kameko’s adorably cute dolls), The Curious Kitty and Friends is never quite distinctive enough to fully arouse our curiosity. DOMO creator Tsuneo Goda, though, deserves bonus points for including a Yeti in the show’s central ensemble.
Sigmund and the Sea Monsters
Hands up if you remember that 1970s series about Sigmund and the Sea Monsters? Perhaps it’s better that you don’t, because this remake from Garrett Frawley and Brian Turner is forgettable fare. The pilot sees two brothers, Johnny and Scotty, discover Sigmund, a friendly ickle creature on the beach. What ensues is a lot of people mugging for the camera and David Arquette pretending to be an old sea captain (who hunts monsters). The monster, though, is styled to be harmless rather than anything remotely convincing, which leaves the whole thing feeling flat, unbelievable and dated. Even David Arquette clearly enjoying himself isn’t enough to elevate matters.
You know when a TV show involves the word “jazz” and duck” that you’re in for a good time. And sure enough, Jazz Duck does not disappoint. We follow the eponymous animal, who is, naturally, part-duck and part-saxophone (biologists will have a field day with this), around the town, as he tries to find his basketball, called Ball. How? Not by looking, but by listening.
Created by Tom Jobbins, co-directing with Mark Perrett, the result is a unique mixture of music and the mundanity of the everyday – a show that celebrates that most basic human habit of creating music from the world around us. Who hasn’t sat at their desk, tapping away beats with their pen or inventing tunes as they whistle? Jazz Duck taps brilliantly into that basic rhythm of life – kids of all ages will find it hard not to tap their feet along with it. Not least because they’re effectively watching a duck parp out of its rear end. (Incidentally, when was the last time you saw a TV show where the lead character is voiced by a saxophonist? Ross Hughes’ riffs make for (ahem) quacking vocals.)
What did you make of Amazon’s June 2016 pilots? Hit the button below to watch them yourself.