Amazon.com kicked off its expansion into creating original TV series on Friday with the debut of eight comedy pilots. While some of the shows come from established entities, like one from The Onion and another starring John Goodman, many of them feature unknowns in the casts and as creators. Amazon is making a bold and risky choice by breaking away from the way TV networks are run by letting audiences see all of its pilots and choosing which ones get picked up to series on the basis of viewer response. Letting audiences pick the shows they want to watch is a smart move, but allowing viewers to decide the fates off of shows off of just one episode could be dangerous. Making a TV pilot is tricky, and some of the best shows ever had weak pilots and were picked up on their promise not on the strength of their first episodes. Nonetheless, it’s an exciting thing Amazon’s doing as no TV network before has ever let the public have a say in their development process
I watched all eight of Amazon’s original comedy offerings this weekend and ranked them in terms of quality. You can watch the pilots for yourself here to find a thing you disagree with me on so you can come back to this page and scream at me in the comments section.
The weakest of Amazon’s new sitcom pilots, Browsers is a musical-comedy series that could stand to put as much emphasis on the comedy as it does on the music. The pilot follows four naïve college-aged interns at a Huffington Post surrogate website called Gush, with Bebe Neuwirth playing their boss Julianna, a thinly-veiled Arianna Huffington surrogate. While the songs and musical sequences are polished and all the actors sing well, the comedy in between the music doesn’t work as effectively. The musical sequences take up so much time that it doesn’t allow for the writing to develop the central quartet of interns beyond being stock characters. As with all pilots, Browsers would improve in its subsequent episodes if picked up. It has an excellent, talented creative team behind it, which inspires confidence that the show would get much better, with longtime Daily Show writer David Javerbaum serving as creator and 30 Rock vets David Miner and Don Scardino producing and/or directing.
While Amazon’s streaming competitor Netflix is launching its original series push with a known comedy brand – Arrested Development – Zombieland is the comedy franchise Amazon chose to revive. The Zombieland pilot starts strong with a funny cold open that doesn’t feature most of the show’s main characters, but once the actual show kicks in and the main characters are introduced, it takes a bit of a dip. Created by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the writers of the original 2009 movie, the pilot recasts all four of its main roles because its busy A-list actors are (presumably) uninterested in doing an Amazon TV show. That’s where the trouble sets in, as all of Zombieland’s leads are famous, well-liked actors and by having unknowns play their same characters, it’s hard not to draw comparisons.
6. Dark Minions
Created by and starring the voices of Big Bang Theory regulars John Ross Bowie and Kevin Sussman, Dark Minions is a stop-motion animated sci-fi comedy about a pair of good-natured temp workers for an evil intergalactic organization. The pilot’s animation isn’t completely finished due to Amazon rushing to have it ready alongside the rest of their first crop of pilots, which take much less effort to shoot than a stop-motion series, but the episode is padded out with animatics that give enough of a sense of what the show will look like, with some scenes fully-animated in stop motion. While the visuals aren’t completely finished, the audio is great, as the supporting voice cast is made up of aces like Andy Daly, Phil LaMarr, Jamie Denbo, and Richard Kind. Bowie and Sussman have created a fun world to play in with plenty to explore if the series gets picked up (not to mention a cliffhanger to resolve).
Centered on a group of four guys trying to get their social networking app off the ground in Silicon Valley, Betas has a strong premise and enough laughs throughout to warrant more episodes. Most of the pilot’s best moments come from Jon Daly (Kroll Show), who plays the lone 30something guy in the startup full of 20somethings and could stand to receive more screentime in subsequent episodes. The show was created by rookie writers Evan Endicott and Josh Stoddard, who clearly researched Silicon Valley startups thoroughly and that shows here. While Betas’ central relationship, between characters Trey and Nash, leaves a little to be desired, there’s enough here to justify more episodes – especially if supporting player Ed Begley Jr. and cameo-er Moby stick around.
The pilot Amazon has been touting the most on its video home page is understandably the one with the biggest star. John Goodman is the most famous person Amazon has lured in so far, and he plays one of four lead characters in Alpha House, a political comedy from Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau. This is Trudeau’s first foray into television since his award-winning HBO miniseries Tanner ‘88 over 20 years ago, and as in all his work, he proves he knows Washington well with his writing here. The show follows a group of four Republican senators living in a rented house together in D.C. and boasts cameos from Bill Murray and Stephen Colbert. Alpha House has a quartet of talented actors at its core who help to imbue their stereotypical characters with more humanity than is on the page. While the pilot isn’t overflowing with hilarious moments, the creator has set the show up in a landscape that he knows well, and there’s a lot of potential for future episodes here.
Produced by Kristen Schaal, Supanatural is an Adult Swim-esque animated series that follows a pair of sassy ladies tasked with defending humanity from supernatural forces – all while working at a mall. There’s basically just one main joke here (the juxtaposition between the ladies’ outspoken, street-smart demeanors and them combating the supernatural), but the writers find enough ways to play that one joke and follow other threads too, so it never gets old in the first episode. The one-liners here are sharp, and they’re backed up by a talented voice cast that includes James Adomian, Kurt Braunohler, Jon Daly, Drew Droege, and Kristen Schaal, all of whom get a lot of mileage out of the material.
Created by Onion News Network writers Will Graham and Dan Mirk, this is the third TV show The Onion has produced in as many years. But where Onion News Network and Onion SportsDome take the form of fake news shows, Onion News Empire is a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional news network and it’s one of the strongest offerings from Amazon’s initial batch of comedy pilots. The show is a parody of the HBO series The Newsroom with quick Onion News Network segments sprinkled throughout. Onion News Empire follows idealistic young reporter Sam West (Malcolm in the Middle’s Chris Masterson), who is backed up by an impressive supporting cast that also includes Jeffrey Tambor as a competitive veteran anchor, 30 Rock’s Cheyenne Jackson as an illiterate hotshot reporter, and Laila Robins (Planes, Trains & Automobiles) as the cold heir to the Onion News Network. A few of the scenes in the pilot might not play to those who haven’t seen The Newsroom, and it does feel a little odd to parody a show that only has an audience of two million viewers a week, but there’s enough funny stuff here that audiences unfamiliar with Sorkin’s work can still find plenty to laugh at. While The Newsroom seems like a nichey target for a spoof, The Onion writers nail Sorkin’s dialogue and overwrought style, and the News Network segments throughout the show help to pack jokes in. Sometimes the transitions between the plot and the news segments are a little jarring, but the format ultimately works and it’s a great vehicle to deliver a fat 25-minute pile of jokes with each episode.
Another way Amazon’s development strategy differs from that of the major networks’ is it has an open door policy for writers to submit their pilot scripts. That open door policy just so happened to lead to the best comedy pilot of the bunch: Those Who Can’t, a show about a trio of irresponsible teachers from Denver, Colorado-based comedy group called The Grawlix. The Grawlix consists of comedians Adam Cayton-Holland, Ben Roy, and Andrew Overdahl, who’ve hosted a live show in Denver for several years and star in a web series together. Of all the shows Amazon premiered this weekend, the Those Who Can’t pilot avoids unnecessary exposition and dives straight into the jokes and character stuff, giving a good look at what a regular episode of the show would look like. The Grawlix guys brought in stand-ups like Nikki Glaser, Kyle Kinane, and Rory Scovel to play supporting roles, which was a smart move and demonstrated something that a lot of these other shows lack: funny professional comedians. Rory Scovel’s performance as the Grawlix guys’ beleaguered school principal is one of the highlights and adds a lot to a pilot that has a lot going for it to begin with.