Pilot Highlights

I’ve already talked about House of Cards, opined for the Veronica Mars Kickstarter project, I’m counting down the days to the premiere of Arrested Development, so it should surprise no one that I took an interest in Amazon’s new Instant Video Pilot Program.

Unlike television, which makes several pilots then has to greenlight shows based on test audiences and feedback from the development department, Amazon is basically crowdsourcing this part of the process to its viewers.  We the audience can watch the pilots, fill out a survey, and make the effort to get the shows we want on the airwaves.  From what I can tell, Amazon is up for greenlighting more than one, but it will be interesting to see what benchmark these shows have to reach to get a full order and just how long this process will take.  Has to be a tense time for the performers and staffs of these shows, as they sit back and see whether their show gets selected or not.

I had heard about Alpha House and Onion News Empire prior to their release this weekend, but I was surprised to see there are actually 14 pilots up for viewing–six kids shows, two animated adult comedies, and six sitcoms.  I wasn’t feeling very cartoonish, but I did check out the six live-action ones and offered up my thoughts both to Amazon and right here in case you are curious what the shows have to offer, ranked in order from best to worst:

1. Betas

While I wouldn’t say this show is the funniest, I will say it is probably my favorite.  While Onion News Empire and Alpha House threw out more jokes, this was the only show in which I found myself pretty invested in both the concept and the characters by episode’s end.  The gist is this: A Silicon Valley startup seeks funding to keep its new social app in development.  At the helm of the project is Trey (Joe Dinicol in a standout performance), who rallies the troops, including his best friend and lead developer Nash.  Trey is the heart and driving force of the story, while the rest of the cast provides a steady stream of laughs with jokes about nerds, internet culture, and startups.

This was the one show I watched where I really did want to see what happens next, which, for me, is what I look for in a comedy. Jokes are great, but if I don’t have some sort of vested interest in the characters, I am not going to stick around.

2. Alpha House

The most traditional sitcom in the bunch, this Washington-set show is kind of like a funny version of “House of Cards” as a quartet of lazy Senators bunk together in a house.  The pilot featured plenty of entertaining jokes, but the real strength of the show lies in the performances.  John Goodman is, of course, awesome.  The real surprise for me though is Clark Johnson. You might recognize him as Gus Haynes from Season 5 of The Wire. I didn’t, as Season 5 of The Wire is pretty terribad and has been banished from my memory along with Season 7 of Buffy and Godfather III.  I don’t recall him being very funny though, so that he got me chuckling in this pilot caught me by surprise.

I will say that the pilot did seem a bit meandering for my tastes. We started with a hilarious inciting incident involving Bill Murray and the pilot did center on finding a new roommate as a result, several other setups were introduced and almost immediately cast away. The speaking filibuster is a great example of a device that was funny and had more potential, but got abandoned rather quickly.

Potential is a word I would use to describe the entire show to be honest. Top notch writers and actors and a premise that works.  I am willing to keep giving it a shot though.

3. Onion News Empire

This satire of “The Newsroom” seemed like it was right up my alley, yet there was something that kept me from getting entirely into it.  Since we are dealing with The Onion here, I know what I am about to say is a bit absurd, but–it is a little too much parody for my taste.  It is the same issue I have with “Community”.  When you become so involved in the parody and the concept of the joke, the characters tend to suffer.  Just look at this season of Community, which has tried to go a little more mainstream and abandoned some of its more out there riffs and parodies.  Now that we are dealing with more “traditional” sitcom set-ups, we are seeing that a lot of the core cast is very one-note (I’m looking at you Annie).  

There are plenty of characters in Onion News Empire, but they tend to be broadly one-note.  I am not asking for a Full House sentimental moment once an episode, but if this gets picked up and doesn’t spend as much time on characters as crafting zingers, I think I am gonna be out.

4. Browsers

If I thought Onion News Empire was going to be up my alley, I didn’t realize that Browsers seems to be basically pulled from my dreams.  It is a musical. About internet content people. And Bebe Neuwirth is in it.  Bebe. Neuwirth.

Yet, this show turned out to be a huge disappointment.

There isn’t a lot of Bebe, unfortunately. Instead, the show focuses on a quartet of interns at a Huffington Post clone searching for link-baiting content across the internet.  The four actors are good enough singers, but the show has made the ill-advised decision to sing original music. Of the four or five musical numbers, three were terrible, one was forgettable, and one was sung by Ms. Neuwirth and contained the refrain “I’m the one with not to fuck”, referring to her status as the big boss on campus. Bebe Neuwirth singing a song about not fucking with her is kind of a can’t-miss setup, but that is more because we are dealing with a talent like Neuwirth and a funny concept, not because the song was exceptionally well-crafted.

It isn’t particularly funny, the characters aren’t particularly interesting, and the songs are more a hindrance than a help. In other words, not a fan.

5. Zombieland

Probably not a good sign that the show most likely to get picked up in this pilot process is 5/6 on my list.  This is a TV version of the amusing Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson flick by the same name.  None of the original cast is back for the show, which is a glaring problem. It is like watching the Greater Sheboygan Community Theater stage a play of the movie. Everything about it is low rent. Plus, as The Walking Dead has shown us, while killing zombies is fun, there is a lot of monotony in an undead apocalypse, so I am already concerned there won’t be enough material for an entire show.  Even in the pilot, they had but one gag that they repeated for 22 minutes with several zombie deaths in between. Bright side if this gets picked up: The Walking Dead might not be the worst zombie-themed episodic show out there anymore.

6. Those Who Can’t

This was a painfully unfunny show about immature teachers at a high school. Honestly, I just can’t get into the manchild humor of shows like “Workaholics” and this is very much in that vein. Barely lasted through the 25 minutes of adults trying to frame a punk student for drug possession, for this show is rather aptly titled.  They just can’t.


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