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Amazon Pilot Season Review: One Gem, and A Lot of Unrealized Promise

Budding Prospects: C-

Based on the 1990 T.C. Boyle novel of the same name, Budding Prospects is a surprisingly low-key pot comedy, featuring a collection of drug-addled slackers trying to find their way in life, set against the backdrop of 1983 San Francisco. Unlike most era-specific shows, however, Budding Prospects doesn’t try to enamor audiences with overwrought time-sensitive material (save for one scene discussing Trolls and how computers are the future)… in fact, it really doesn’t try to enamor audiences with anything at all, leaving the more dramatic, salacious material of Boyle’s novel to go completely unexplored. Budding Prospects is the epitome of indulgent Peak TV Pilot syndrome; there’s nothing about the first thirty minutes that tries to establish any sort of narrative rhythm or character development, led by a milquetoast protagonist and a group of supporting characters that express their sensibilities in the dramatic equivalent of a checklist.

*side note: will there ever be a comedy that actually serves Natalie Morales well? The Grinder failed miserably, and this show does her equally as dirty.

The presence of Morales, Will Sasso, Brett Gelman, and the criminally-underrated Joel David Moore just isn’t enough to make up for the lifeless script, directed with equal blandness by Bad Santa director Terry Zwigoff. Unlike many Amazon pilots, Budding Prospects actually suffers from a lack of bold dramatic decisions and high-concept premises; it’s only in the final thirty seconds that Budding actually begins its story, and by then any sense of intrigue is lost, buried under a collection of emotionally detached, dramatically inert scenes and conversations. There’s certainly a darker, more driven version of this show that could work really well, but its undying allegiance to being aloof and desperately “weird” (the Gelman and Sasso performances are a bit much) sucks any sense of life and color out of the show’s largely hollow core.

The Legend of Master Legend: C+

The Legend of Master Legend is such a disparate collection of ideas and moments that it’s hard to get a feel for this show in just one viewing. Vacillating between dark comedy and dour White Middle Age Angst drama, TLML is not only the most terribly-named new show of the pilot season, but also the most confusing to try and decipher. Starring the brilliant John Hawkes as Master Legend (in an adaptation of a true story, I might add), a self-proclaimed superhero way past his prime, TLML tries to fit itself somewhere between Super and The Martha Universe (aka The DC universe) in terms of tone, familial problems, and relative dramatic pace (The Wrestler is also not a bad point of reference), and is equal parts successful and unpleasantly vacant in trying to pastiche these many elements together into a coherent 30 minutes.

There are plenty of moments where TLML is obviously trying too hard, spouting Biblical monologues and spending a lot of time in a pretty laughably-overwrought high school plot; when it slows down to build out the back story of its world and focuses on familial aspects of the story, some of the bigger ideas and religious parallels are able to be expressed much more subtly. Surprisingly, it’s the episode’s second half that begins to display a bit of this emotional maturity, shying away from the typical Big Twists and Important Declarations so many pilots, network or otherwise, suffer from; if the first 15 minutes are a turn-off due to the bad wigs and heavy-handed dialogue, it’s the rare show that finds ways to transcend the self-seriousness that drowns out the first two acts.

Thanks to a wonderful Hawkes performance and a number of moments in the final few minutes that offer unseen promise to what this show could look like as a longer narrative, TLML is something I’d like to see come to series, albeit in a more limited form than some of its signature shows. The balance between humor and darkness this show tries to find is a difficult one to try and maintain over a long 10 or 13 episode arc; something like TLML could have some serious potential as a 6 or 8 episode show, allowing it to bear down on the elements that work (like the goofy 80’s action movie personality lurking underneath it, and the family-centric storytelling), without the pressures of a larger, serialized narrative to serve, having to maintain a consistent thematic approach that the structure of this show doesn’t lend itself very well to. It’s not a guarantee, given how trite and predictably traditional much of the episode’s first half is, but there are surprising glimpses of promise that could be teased out and developed into something small, unique, and memorable.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: B+

It would be easy to get swept up in the Amy Sherman-Palladino hype behind The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – after all, millions of people conveniently remembered that Gilmore Girls was their favorite show of all time last year, while die-hard fans were still reeling from the crushing, defeating sound of ABC Family (now Freeform, whatever the hell that means) canceling Bunheads a couple years ago. And with its period-specific wardrobes, accents, and chauvinistic mannerisms, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was instantly poised to be the next period drama everyone appreciates, but nobody actually watches or cares about (remember when people gave a shit about Downton Abbey?).

For roughly half its 40-minute running time, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is exactly what you’d expect from the background I gave it above; it feels like a very niche show from a Signature Creator (like Aaron Sorkin or *shudder*, Ryan Murphy), shoved into the allure of a high-budget period piece, full of little touches like retro cabs, women measuring their every single body part, and everybody smoking cigarettes everywhere (for fans of shows with smoking, it’s a gold mine of Mad Men proportions in this pilot). It relies completely on the movement of its protagonist to catalyze tension (that, and the “oh, there’s Tony Shalhoub!” factor), a stress that works in the short term to slap a viewer into paying attention, but ends up running thin by the time it sprints into what eventually becomes the climatic moments of the first hour.

However, when it goes for its Big Twist, it nails it in a way that many pilots don’t even try to do, revealing the entire first half as an elaborate construction the second half neatly deconstructs, like a fancy 1950’s-style pocket watch (see what I did there? #content).  This makes for a pretty brilliant conclusion, bringing the show’s ideas about identity into sharp focus, while reminding us that House of Cards utterly fucking wasted the talents of Rachel Brosnahan for three whole years before speaking up. All the wild energy of the first half is channeled into something more nuanced, and a hell of a lot more poignant, as the titular character’s perfect life comes falling apart around her over the course of a single night. Loud, abrasive, and unapologetic, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is poised to be Netflix’s Fleabag of 2017,  a sharply feminist series (this has to get ordered to series, right? No way it doesn’t) that’s not afraid to be dark with its comedy and heavy with its brief existential bent – plus it features a fantastic Luke Kirby performance (playing Lenny Bruce, to boot), making this easily the most promising, exciting new pilot this season from The Studio That Sells Everything and Now Makes Stuff Too.


The New V.I.P.’s:
 D

I had high hopes for The New V.I.P.‘s, a pilot created and written by Steve Dildarian, he of the low-profile gem The Life and Times of Tim on HBO a few years ago. Like Life and Times of TimThe New V.I.P.is built around constructing absurdities out of the banality of corporate life, the animated mashup of Seinfeld and Office Space you never knew you actually wanted. Trying to capture lightning in a bottle a second time is difficult, of course, and The New V.I.P.’s often feels like it’s trying to channel the same energy as its predecessor, which was at its best when it was making its main character miserable, cosmic justices served to a protagonist so naive and short-sighted that he often constructed his own destruction.

The New V.I.P.’s forgets that fundamental truth; in its place here are elevated office hijinks centered around a group of employees who cover up their boss’s death in the most unconventional of ways in order to seize power from the company. Where Tim let its plots spin out of control in very deliberate ways, the events of V.I.P.’s feel random and mushed together, growing larger in scope with each passing scene, which works against Dildarian’s talents as a writer. The few moments Dildarian’s comedic voice is able to shine are when V.I.P.’s backs off the dramatic plot elements and builds out the relationships between the different characters in its world; unfortunately, those moments are far and few between, an unsatisfying balance that undermines the show’s strengths more and more with each passing scene.

Admittedly, The New V.I.P.’s has a number of satisfying punch lines, but the larger jokes it builds around the inventive visual gags and entertaining exchanges between minor characters are nowhere near as successful, a series of plot twists that feel laboriously crafted to feel like a high-concept comedy. Perhaps it is my affection for Tim that lingers watching this show (which features similar art styles, to match its similar sense of humor), but The New V.I.P.’s various elements, from the odd voice-overs to the Edgy humor, never coalesce in any sort of satisfying fashion.


Oasis:
 C

Taken at face value, Oasis appears to be the Next Big prestige sci-fi drama; starring Richard Madden and a lot of fancy landscapes (plus bearded Haley Joel Osment), Oasis talks with the high-minded space rhetoric (complete with overt religious metaphors) one would expect a high-profile Amazon pilot to have. It’s got space vehicles, one black character who is obviously the guy losing his mind in space, and a whole lot of story and character and intrigue and exposition to work through in the course of 57 minutes; it is certainly not a show that lacks in scope or vision, that’s for sure. But what is that vision, beyond a series of tried-and-true space mystery stories and an overwhelming feeling this is just another take on Stanislaw Lem’s space novel Solaris?

After two viewings of this pilot, I’m still struggling for an answer. Sure, Oasis wraps itself in the trappings of a prestige drama with Big Thoughts, centered on a Priest Who Fucks that ends up on an alien planet being set up for human colonization, summoned by a man who has somehow since disappeared (and cannot be found, despite the repeated references to the amount of drones flying around said planet). There are heavy allusions to darker forces at play – every character is having LOST illusions, basically – and vague proclamations of deeper ideas about faith and humanity that never really come to fruition in the first 57 minutes. In fact, whenever the pilot isn’t harping on the Dead Wife backstory for the main character, it is so enamored with its own world and increasingly violent mystery that it forgets to build out most of its characters into something interesting, beyond the archetypal roles we’d expect from the genre. Anil Kapoor’s character, a man thrust into charge by circumstances he doesn’t understand, comes closest with the gray moral shades thrown into some of his dialogue, but his limited presence in the deeper, more revelatory parts of the pilot mitigate his ability to cast the same philosophic cloud over the rest of the pilot. And without that, it’s mostly dull-colored, oddly-envisioned (how they using gas-powered vehicles on this planet, for example), and utterly predictable – traits it could certainly grow out of over the course of the series, but in the first hour, drown out any promising moments sprinkled in the world surrounding The Priest Who Fucks.

Written By

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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