Amazon TV pilot review: The Tick, I Love Dick, Jean-Claude Van Johnson
Ivan Radford | On 20, Aug 2016Reading time: 6 mins
Amazon’s 2016 summer season of TV pilots is now here, giving us a taste of three possible new original series for Amazon Prime Video. The deciding factor? The feedback of those who watch it. The good news is that anyone can watch them for free on Amazon’s web site. The even better news is that they’re all good.
From a show based on a feminist novel about a couple’s marital struggles in the academic community of Texas and an offbeat superhero tale to a martial arts thriller, this might be the strongest Amazon pilot TV season yet. Plus they’re only 30 minutes each, so there’s no excuse not to try them on for size.
Here are our thoughts on each:
When a TV show begins with the words “your reindeer are on fire”, you know you’re in for a good time. Based on the comic book of the same name, this new version of The Tick is the latest in a long line of adaptations for the screen, from an animated show to a live-action programme around a decade ago. Now, Peter Serafinowicz steps into the titular blue-costumed role – and it’s a perfect fit.
After years of the side-splitting comedian (hello to Brian Butterfield) appearing in small, supporting roles, it’s a treat to see him placed centre stage. Like a British Will Arnett, he’s got a knack for delivering the most absurd things with a straight face, which makes him ideal for the idiotic Tick. Griffin Newman, meanwhile, sells eventual-sidekick Arthur’s nervous, lonely, obsessive streak with enough sincerity to make it believable, but not heavy enough to cloud the comedy.
That balance is where this take on The Tick works. It dives into the modern superhero trend for gritty realism – young Arthur, who sees a bunch of caped crusaders killed in front of him, doesn’t grow up with dreams of being a hero himself, but instead turns to medication and conspiracy theories. (“I’m a together person!” he yells brilliantly at the police.) But it also jumps antennae-first into the absurd silliness of its original source.
Together, the lead duo manage to make this both deep and dumb – Arthur’s big trauma stems partly from seeing The Terror, our Big Bad, steal his frozen yoghurt – with Serafinowicz barking out nonsensical one-liners like Adam West reincarnated. “You’ve got the brains,” he tells Arthur. “I’ve got the everything else!”
At a time when superheroes are increasingly gloomy and adult, it’s a joy to have a series that stands out from the pack just by being weird. Crucially, while it’s smartly meta, The Tick isn’t a spoof of other superhero shows, but rather its own thing: a comedy in which the characters just happen to be comic book characters. Our hero has the power of “a crowded bus stop of men”, he boasts, with a massive grin. The result is wonderfully daft and unafraid to take itself stupidly – an enjoyable change of pace to the Marvel universe being built over at Netflix. With DC going increasingly dark at the multiplex, this is the superhero series we deserve – and the one that Amazon needs.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson
Jean-Claude Van Damme plays himself in this post-modern action comedy. That premise alone might turn you off, but there’s a twist to this self-aware series: this version of himself doesn’t just ponder his existence or make insider jokes about Hollywood; he’s also a hit man in his spare time.
We catch up with Johnson (his code name), as Van Damme’s career has reached a dead-end. He’s washed-up, can’t remember his lines and even the style of fighting has changed from his unrealistic one-man-at-a-time duels to full-on brawls. Splits are out. And not just because he can’t do them anymore.
Van Damme is great at sending his persona up, keeping a gruff, deadpan expression throughout the barrage of silliness around him – he’s a natural straight man, a fish out of water in a time where ramen is served dry and restaurants have become “pop-up experiences”.
Jokes about Nic Cage and Bruce Willis are all present and correct, not to mention a predictable romantic subplot involving Kat Foster’s rival agent (his agent, played by Phylicia Rashad is the real female star of the show). While the digs at hipsters can sometimes be a bit forced, it’s the action that gives Jean-Claude Van Johnson a unique personality, when compared to similar programmes such as Curb Your Enthusiasm or Hoff the Record. The martial arts sequences are genuinely impressive, with Key and Peele director Peter Atencio giving moments such as a terrible action remake of Huckleberry Finn real visual style and wit. Whether that’s enough to sustain what is effectively a sketch for a whole show is hard to say, but Hoff the Record has shown its possible to keep the laughs coming from what could have been a one-joke premise. As for JCVD, it’s clear he isn’t pulling any punches.
I Love Dick
“Every letter is a love letter.”
With Transparent, creator Jill Soloway has surely earned a deserved black cheque from Amazon to make whatever she wants. Her choice? Chris Kraus’ book, I Love Dick, which follows filmmaker Chris (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband, Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), who takes them to Marfa, where he has been offered a fellowship to finish a book he’s been writing on the Holocaust.
Their marriage has dried up, their creative impulses deadened and their sex life is non-existent. And then in walks Dick (Kevin Bacon), the academic darling of the town. He swaggers around on a horse, wears tight, white t-shirts and has a seminar with a two-year waiting list. What does he read? “I’m post-idea,” he declares, smugly, at dinner with our lead couple.
Bacon is better than those dreadful EE adverts, as dickish as his character’s name would suggest, but also unbearably alluring with his confidence, intelligence and brazen eye contact. He turns out to be the spark their marriage needs to fire up again – and it’s in that bizarre chemistry that the show strikes into fascinating territory.
Griffin Dunner is enjoyably drab as Sylvere, but Kathryn Hahn is marvellous; after her scene-stealing turn in Transparent, it’s no surprise that Soloway would put her centre-stage for her next project. Hahn is devastatingly real, from her sadness and frustration to her excitement at her encounter with Dick – an excitement that takes over our screen, as a sexual fantasy boldly reinvents the male-gazing spectacle we’re usually fed, and her letters to him begin in bright red and white letters.
Full of promising nuance, likeable characters and gorgeous visual compositions, this pilot is an intriguing study of human relationships and artistic inspiration – and an excellent piece of television that demands for more episodes to be made. At this point, Amazon could commission an adaptation of the telephone book by Soloway and we’d be watching.