Amazon TV pilot reviews: Red Oaks, Hand of God, The Cosmopolitans, Really, Hysteria
Ivan Radford | On 31, Aug 2014
Amazon’s new batch of TV pilots have arrived online for all to stream – and it contains one gem, one stinker, and three others with varying potential.
The third season of pilots for Amazon Original shows sees the company continue its now familiar approach of asking the public for their opinion on what they’d like to watch. The shows, some spanning 30 minutes, others an hour, are available for everyone to stream for free, meaning that non-customers can also vote and comment on the line-up. Amazon then looks at the ratings, discussions and – for those who fill in a survey – detailed feedback before deciding what to give the green light.
It’s a pleasingly personal response to Netflix’s data-driven algorithms, although it hasn’t always yielded strong results – the first two series, Alpha House and Betas, felt oddly old-fashioned for such a modern viewing platform. Its animated show, Creative Galaxy, wasn’t anything to shout home to the kids about either.
With the impressive Transparent (from its second batch) on the way at the end of September, though, Amazon’s approach seems to be finding its groove – one that is attracting more and more interesting talent, including (in this round) David Gordon Green, Whit Stillman, Selma Blair and Ron Perlman.
Which Amazon TV pilots are worth checking out? Here are our verdicts on each of the opening episodes:
Red Oaks (David Gordon Green)
What is it? A playful 80s comedy with an instantly individual style.
Who’s in it? Craig Roberts
It’s not often that a TV show feels fully-formed in its first episode. A typical series takes a few weeks to settle in, to reveal its characters, to find its voice. Red Oaks is not one of those series.
Ostensibly a coming-of-age story, the pilot follows David, a student who gets a summer job at the country club of the title. And, sure enough, there’s everything you expect from such a premise: the potentially unfaithful girlfriend, the disapproving parents, the stoner sidekicks. But Joe Gangemi’s and Gregory Jacobs’ script, directed delicately by David Gordon Green, doesn’t rely on the tropes of the 80s movies: it plays with them.
In their hands, each familiar beat becomes something entertaining and fresh. When David’s dad suffers a heart attack in the opening scene, Richard Kind wastes no time in subverting your expectation (the word “Orientals” comes up), a move that turns lazy schmaltz into laughs – and sets the tone for the whole 30 minutes. Green establishes an easygoing, unforced atmosphere out of something that could’ve become become stiflingly quirky. So when the stoner sidekick, Wheeler (Oliver Cooper), tries to hit on the hot girl, Misty (Alexandra Turshen), the set-up manages to avoid cliche but doesn’t dismiss sentiment.
Each character feels fully-formed as we meet them, the cast establishing them while cueing up strands for them to develop. Ennis Esmer’s unctuous tennis coach steals almost every scene he’s in, sucking up to the rich clientele before dispatching blunt asides with a delightfully plummy voice. “Who wants to be the bedroom wife?” he calls to two scantily clad country club employees, before telling them his skin smells of cardamom.
At the heart of the twenty-something haze is Craig Roberts. It’s a treat to see a leading role that showcases the Submarine star, a part that allows him to build on his neurotic presence with likeable depth. His wide eyes are wonderfully terrified, but he is also sarcastic and assertive; far from the stereotyped loser he could have been.
A post-modern The Wonder Years? A 21st Century John Hughes? In a blissfully short half-hour, Red Oaks feels like it could be both and more. We’ve seen a lot of TV pilots for Amazon Originals. This is the first that feels like it lives up to that name.
More? Yes please now thank you.
Hand of God (Marc Forster)
What is it? True
Who’s in it? Ron Perlman, Dana Delaney
From the dark themes of revenge to the hard blues theme tune – “I’m a human, but remember first I’m a man!” – Hand of God feels like a lot of things you’ve seen before, in both good ways and bad. Ron Perlman (in his first lead TV role since Sons of Anarchy) stars as Pernell Harris, a man who thinks he can hear his comatose son talking to him.
That wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that Pernell is a judge. A corrupt judge. A corrupt judge who isn’t afraid to take the law into his own hands. Crystal, his wife (a scene-stealing Dana Delany), attempts to control his descent into full-on violent madness, but finds herself up against not just her husband but the priest who recently converted him into a born-again Christian. Julian Morris is enjoyably slippery as the charismatic Paul Curtis, who seems more con artist than man of the cloth. As a new church spreads in the urban underbelly and Pernell tries to hunt down the man who raped his daughter, there are hints here of a wider conspiracy; something rotten in City Hall. Because there always is.
Directed with equal parts grit and gloss by Marc Forster (also making his small screen debut), the result is something reassuringly familiar – Drugs! Murder! Dodgy religious movements! – if sometimes disappointingly so (cf. almost every female character we meet). Perlman towers over the material, crazy, angry and powerful, yet occasionally understated. His volatile presence could elevate the rest of the programme to his height, if given room to grow.
“You know what you can do in 7 months?” he rails against a policeman refusing to show him confidential case files until further down the line. “You can have a baby, if you’re pressed!” You can also turn this into a decent (read: entertainingly trashy) TV series. Hand of God is far from groundbreaking, but it’s quite intriguing.
More? Why not?
The Cosmopolitans (Whit Stillman)
What is it? Girls. With more men.
Who’s in it? Adam Brody
“What becomes of the broken hearted?” belts out Joan Osborne as The Cosmopolitans kicks off. The episode title? The Broken Hearted. Our main characters? Broken hearted expats who have moved from America to Paris. It’s hardly subtle, but that’s what you expect from Whit Stillman: a style as knowing as it is nostalgic.
It’s a pleasure to see Adam Brody post-The OC star as Jimmy, who brashly defines himself as a Parisian, rather than an American in Paris – a claim that amuses a snooty fashion journalist (Chloë Sevigny). Bumping into another young expat (the Audrey Hepburn-esque Aubrey, played by Carrie MacLemore) Jimmy and his friends – equally naive Hal (Jordan Rountree) and seasoned veteran Sandro (Adriano Giannini) – end up at a party held by an acquaintance, the hammy rich boy Fritz (Freddy Asblom). There, they exchange suggestive glances, witty dialogue – “She’s not from home, she’s from Vancouver” – and even dance moves.
The fact that the dance the Sambola will please fans of Damsels in Distress, Stillman’s latest film, as will the rest of it. This is enjoyably stylised entertainment, which turns socialising into serious art and superficiality into substance; it may be First World Problems: The TV Series, but it is just as much about the way these characters express their problems. If you’re a fan of Whit’s wit, this stroll through Paris will be right up your cinephile street. If not, The Cosmopolitans’ magaziney sheen may be only skin-deep; a Girls companion, featuring more men. Either way, it’s nice to see an indie darling branching out into a new format, even if he is treading old ground.
More? We wouldn’t say no.
Really (Jay Chandrasekhar)
What is it? Another marital sitcom.
Who’s in it? Jay Chandrasekhar, Selma Blair, Sarah Chalke
The parade of punctuation that follows “Really” when the title is displayed at the start of Jay Chandrasekhar’s sitcom might well warn you off – but if the premise screams “same old”, the cast at least bring something fairly new to the table.
The show follows four couples as they struggle to survive married life. For Jed (Chandrasekhar) and Lori (Sarah Chalke), the secret appears to be laughter; the couple click together like matching spoons, honest about, yet enamoured with, each other’s shortcomings. For Luka Jones’ Fred, though, the answer is booze and drugs – and lots of it. This first episode centres on an evening around his house, where alcohol is swiftly followed by arguments and other typically scandalous affairs.
Eight middle-aged partners negotiating the pitfalls of adulthood may not sound original, but the actors sell the humour and awkwardness of it all – with the fantastic Selma Blair stealing the show as Fred’s not-very-sympathetic wife, who moves from patient to guilty party with a sultry glare. Created with what looks to be a candid edge by Jay Chandrasekhar, there is potential for Really to escape from the myriad marital sitcoms that already exist, although it would have to offer something bolder than birthday blow jobs. Even if the title fails to stand out, the cast holds enough promise to become more than occasional streaming acquaintances.
More? Only if you’ve run out of other marital sitcoms.
Hysteria (Otto Bathurst)
What is it? A laboured the Internet-is-bad drama.
Who’s in it? Menu Suvari
The word “viral” has become commonplace in the modern world, its meaning twisted to become something harmless and metaphorical. What if, though, a viral video literally was a virus? That’s the idea behind Hysteria, Shaun Cassidy’s drama.
Mena Suvari plays neurologist Logan Harlen, who returns to her home town to investigate an outbreak of seizures, which appears to be linked to footage of a young dancer having a fit. The show’s central conceit – a social media disease – is a potentially interesting (if laboured) response to our technological age, but its introduction is ironically slow to spread, spending time getting to know our dancers and their personal problems – hello, sexual blackmail – not to mention Logan’s own inevitable demons.
Could it all be linked to our heroine’s past? Does it have something to do with her incarcerated brother? And what exactly happens if you watch the video on a loop all night? Otto Bathurst (of Peaky Blinders) directs Hysteria’s opener with an attractive darkness, but the heavy script’s lack of momentum and po-faced topicality doesn’t leave you frantically rushing for repeat views.
More? Rent The Ring instead.
To watch the third season of Amazon’s TV Pilots, head to www.amazon.co.uk/pilots.
Corrections: This article has been updated to note that Judge Harris is Ron Perlman’s first lead TV role since Sons of Anarchy. Originally, it incorrectly said that it was Ron Perlman’s first TV role.