Amazon TV pilots autumn 2015 review: Edge, Patriot, Z, Highston, Good Girls Revolt, One Mississippi
James R | On 07, Nov 2015
Amazon has unveiled its latest season of TV pilots for autumn 2015, a process that, thanks to the company’s decision to open up the commissioning process to the public, gives you an insight into how ambitious the VOD service has become. This new batch is wildly diverse, ranging from a gritty Western and a comedy about mental illness to a biopic and a spy thriller. But even within their genres, they don’t quite fit the usual conventions: 30-minute shows, for example, aren’t necessarily comedies at all, but are happy just to be serious and thoughtful. On the one hand, it means this selection seems haphazard and unfocused (both overall and individually), but it also shows you just how willing Amazon is to consider series of any size, style or form.
Effort, though, isn’t the same as achievement. Which ones out of the new Amazon TV pilots are worth your time – and, if you want to see them get made into a show sharpish, your support?
We take a look at the class of autumn 2015, available to watch for free, whether you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber or not.
Patriot (60 minutes)
When was the last time you saw a secret agent who was also a folk singer? That’s what Patriot is really good at: being hard to pin down. A look at writer Steven Conrad’s CV – The Weather Man, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – highlights just how talented he is at drifting between tones, and this deceptively unconventional series doesn’t break the trend. It follows intelligence office John Tavner, who is on a mission to stop Iran from going nuclear. That means he needs a job at a Midwestern industrial piping firm so he can fly out there undercover. Michael Dorman is great as the troubled guy, who isn’t sure about his line of work but is willing to push other people under the bus to get it done. Conrad surrounds him with equally bizarre people, from a colleague at the oil company that strips to prove he’s buff enough to do spy stuff, to his disapproving boss (Terry O’Quinn). Who also happens to be his dad.
Familial drama and perilous plotting make this a show that demands your attention, yet also wriggles around so much that it’s sometimes hard to sustain it. But when it finds its groove, Patriot soars: every time John picks up a guitar, his witty but straight-faced ditties – full of guffaws and knowing tragedy – make you want to hear more. “I got some bad intelligence,” he sings to a baffled bar. “Shot an old male hotel maid, who was just making a physicist’s bed.” The government officials soon descend to take away his mic. The bleakly hilarious result is frustratingly uneven but undoubtedly intelligent – like watching Archer directed by the Coen brothers.
Highston (30 minutes)
Highston Liggetts (Lewis Pullman) is a 19-year-old with a wide circle of celebrity friends. The problem? Only he can see them. Nebraska’s Bob Nelson writes this enjoyably silly show, which, like Patriot, doesn’t conform to tradition. As Highston navigates the urge of his parents to go to hospital and the cries of famous people to screw everyone else and have fun, his fantasy detours make for a welcome departure from the usual coming-of-age formula. “You can live here but you have to either get a job, go to school or submit yourself for psychic evaluation,” says his mum (24’s Mary Lynn Rajskub). “Definitely either tomorrow or next week.”
Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris do a great job of filming the celebrity cameos – there one minute, gone the next – with both feeling and farce, which gives the whole thing an amusing yet serious tone. The fact that everyone else around him is equally unbalanced only adds to the absurdity.
“Do you know what my problem is?” asks one character. “A complete inability to feel real joy?” shoots back the other.
The premise, as it is, though, doesn’t seem to go anywhere or have any real purpose – you suspect it would rely on the guests it could secure to survive a full season (current celebrities include Shaquille O’Neal and musician Flea). There’s potential for that shifting roster to provide both novelty and smarts. For now, though, the important thing is this: between its physical comedy and throwaway one-liners, Highston is, despite its unbalanced nature, very, very funny. You’ll laugh more times in this episode than you will in many mainstream sitcoms.
One Mississippi (30 minutes)
Comedian Tig Notaro joins a long line of comedians playing themselves in on-screen semi-autobiographies. This one follows her as she deals with the unexpected death of her mother, Caroline. It’s a tough subject for any comedy to deal with, and Tig’s first-hand understanding gives her script (co-written and co-exec produced with Diablo Cody) a heartfelt pathos and downbeat vibe that feels far more sincere than many comedian-led series. Director Nicole Holofcener, who has history with the awkward and the painful, is a perfect fit for the material, finding laughs and sadness in even the final moments of Tig’s mother’s life, as she wheezes for breath in hospital. There’s a gentle sway between dark and light that feels very familiar, but still makes for moving – and amusing – viewing, without shying away from the question of finding one’s way in the world in the wake of a huge loss. “Good night,” says Tig’s girlfriend as they go to sleep. “Bad night,” comes the reply, without missing a beat.
If Amazon has shown one thing so far, between sci-fi The Man in the Hard Castle and detective noir Bosch, it’s that it’s willing to embrace genre. That becomes even more evident with the pilot for Edge, which offers that rare thing: a TV Western.
Based on George G. Gilman’s books, which we haven’t read, the series is created by none other than Shane Black, the man who defined the action genre with Lethal Weapon and subverted another with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Working with Fred Dekker, they craft a tale of rough justice, as cowboy Josiah Hedges, whose name is constantly mispronounced by others as “Edge”, winds up as a reluctant Deputy in a well-disciplined town.
His boss? Big Bill (the enjoyably hammy William Sadler), who is far from a good guy in a white suit. As corruption, sex and old grudges all come to the surface, bullets begging to fly thicker and faster through the gritty air.
Max Martini is great as Edge, growling his way through the dialogue more than speaking. But the script, which crams in female stereotypes and a brief appearance by True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten as an awfully on-the-nose villain, never quite finds the emotional or narrative depth to back up the cool surface. You wonder if there would be a better one-off movie here than a full season, although the chance to have another TV Western is a welcome one. (If Edge had you at “Shane Black Western”, this is for you.)
Black directs the set pieces with visceral flair, giving things a satisfyingly grisly vibe, but if his action errs towards the edgy, it only highlights how middle-ground the rest of it is.
A bio-series about Zelda Sayre, the soon-to-be wife of F. Scott Firzgerald? That’s the kind of thing you could imagine BBC One making for a string of Sunday nights. Creators Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin, though, buck convention immediately by sticking to a half-hour runtime, rather than a full 60 minutes. The result gives a fresh pace to what could be a mediocre production, something that assures you’ll never feel like Zelda’s overstayed her welcome. Christina Ricci helps with that, giving a great turn as the period-costumed belle, while David Strathairn as her stern dad is typically good value. It doesn’t grab you as a binge-watching must-see – again, would this be better suited to a feature? – but an intriguing opening monologue about Fitzgerald’s view of life and use of fictional characters suggests there are places for the programme to go. With only 30-minute chunks in which to do it, a whole season certainly wouldn’t be a hard journey.
Good Girls Revolt
“I don’t joke about writing or cooking,” says a young Nora Ephron (Grace Gummer) in the opening episode of this show about girls working at a 1960s US newspaper. At the end of the decade, Meredith Hunter was murdered at a Rolling Stones gig, while the tide was turning against the Vietnam war, but the wave of counter-culture is news to those at our weekly magazine, where women are unappreciated researchers doing the hard work behind the scenes to make the male reporters look good on the page. Gummer’s likeably gutsy forward-thinker isn’t one to stand for it – and she sets in motion a movement among the paper’s female staffers against the glass ceiling stopping them from moving up in the world. (Watch out for Pitch Perfect’s Anna Camp.)
Feminism is enjoying something of a moment at present – one that is long overdue – but it’s telling that this is still a strikingly rare chance to see a female-led TV series, even in 2015. That fact excuses a lot of Good Girls Revolt’s weaknesses.
Journalist veteran Dana Calvo gives the screenplay a convincing insight into the sexist media industry, which leaves you not only rooting for the characters on screen, but pondering how accurate some of it still could be today. The pilot’s script, though, can be too on-the-nose with its message, occasionally at the expense of character and nuance. But as the focus shifts commendably to solidarity and teamwork, there’s a lot to be said about a show that is smart, sexy and eager to treat “girls” as more than secretaries – especially one that features such a killer soundtrack and a scene openly discussing orgasms and vaginas. A classy period drama with a typing pool that isn’t afraid of men? Mad Women, it is. More please.