Amazon pilots (Part 3): The comedies

Los Angeles Times Television Critic

In two previous posts, I discussed the Amazon pilots, a slate of proposed series by the cyberspace bookseller turned virtual moving-picture studio, now streaming online for viewer comment and ratings. (Thousands have already chimed in.) The first post was for background and context; the second looked at six projected children’s shows.

And now come the comedies, which number eight. One is a cartoon, one is puppet-animated. One is a musical. Basic- to premium-cable in tone, all come with warnings as to adult content. (The musical comes with the additional warning that it is a musical.) None, at least as seen here, is destined for a broadcast network, though a couple would take only minor tweaks to conform to FCC rules and regulations and industry standards and practices. (Amazon will stream whatever series it decides to produce but may also shop its wares to the Old Media.) Most swing for a younger demographic (some, to be sure, being made by that younger demographic). None attempt to remake the form.

On a technical level, they’re polished enough to go anywhere; Amazon’s “open-door” submission policy notwithstanding, they are not homemade works of guerrilla television but the refined handiwork of industry pros. And in terms of content, the least of them are not as bad as things you can see right now on actual TV. I realize that that is a low bar, and Amazon does not bat eight for eight, but all in all, it’s an impressive first outing. Your average TV network or production company, offering as many pilots, might do no better.

Amazon TV Pilots: Part 1 | Part 2

More or less in descending order of how much I like them:

The witty “Alpha House,” from Garry Trudeau, is a domestic/workplace comedy, focusing on a variety pack of Republican senators sharing close quarters in Washington, D.C. (Trudeau is famously the creator of “Doonesbury,” but also Robert Altman’s collaborator on the HBO campaign-trail comedy “Tanner ’88" and its Sundance Channel sequel, “Tanner on Tanner.”) The specificity of its party parody makes it more of a niche production than mainstream TV would likely like, but — as with HBO’s “Veep” — the pilot is less about policy than it is about politics, and how to survive within them; it’s a character comedy. John Goodman, big and floppy and fatigued as a Southern senator whose only agenda is to stay a senator, is in excellent form, although Clark Johnson (“The Wire”) as the smartest of the four forms the pilot’s still center and feels like its actual star. Mark Consuelos (cocky Latin lover) and Matt Malloy (gay and in denial, I think — not completely sure) round out the housemates. There is a cameo at the beginning from Bill Murray, frantically cursing a blue streak, shaving and brushing his teeth at once, as agents of the Department of Justice come to collect him; another, at the end, features Steven Colbert as Steven Colbert.


The acute irony of “The Onion,” in print and video, has felt more necessary than ever lately — a bitter tonic to times that feel ever more out of joint. Created by Will Graham and Dan Mirk of the online/Comedy Central “Onion News Network,” the Amazon pilot “Onion News Empire” builds back from the false front of its news reports to imagine the engine behind them. If it plays a little like a parody of “The Newsroom,” that is something its creators also know. (“Can you walk and talk at the same time?” production assistant Aja Naomi King asks new reporter Christopher Masterson. “Yes,” he answers, “I took a class in it.”) He is farm-fresh Jimmy Stewart to her semi-cynical Jean Arthur; but in this looking-glass world, cynicism not only wins out but is celebrated. (King’s character had wanted to be a reporter but “failed the facial symmetry test — I’m sure you can tell that my right eye is three tenths of a nanomillimeter lower than my left.”) Jeffrey Tambor is the older anchorman (“I’ve interviewed 14 presidents”), scheming against Cheyenne Jackson’s younger one; director William Salder barks commands like “Snaggle that winkle ... and swab it!” Absurd characters master absurd situations absurdly, but also dead seriously; if W.S. Gilbert were writing today, he might have produced something like this.

Kristen Schall (“The Daily Show,” “Bob’s Burgers”) is an executive producer of the cartoon “SupaNatural,” created by Lily Sparks and starring Sparks and Jameeliah Garrett as Hezbah and Lucretia, bickering best-friend mall-workers and low-rent divas who are also “Buffy"-style nemeses of paranormal evil. “How the Vatican goin’ to hire us to find this mythological artifact and then pay us with a hot check,” snorts Hezbah, holding a powerful and annoying Crystal Skull as she rides in Lucretia’s car. “Be sure you put that under the seat when you’re done with it,” says Lucretia. “I don’t want anyone breaking into the Tercel.” The style, which makes the supernatural and superheroic into something banal and distracted, is pure “Adult Swim,” and though (or perhaps because) it plays to that formula, I found it pretty consistently funny. Like a lot of animated works these days, it has a casual, semi-improvised sound; the heroines stay relaxed even when the apocalypse is upon them. Riki Lindhome (“Garfunkel and Oates”) is the hot-girl human frenemy who works the cellphone kiosk.

Bebe Neuwirth is the designated older person in “Browsers,” a musical sitcom from “Daily Show” vet David Javerbaum about a group of interns in the brave new world of content aggregation. Neuwirth’s character is an Arianna Huffington knockoff who runs a website called the Daily Gush; her Eastern European accent, pale skin, dark hair and icy demeanor are perhaps intentionally vampiric, but she shows a secret soft spot eventually. (The show has thinly veiled Heart.) And she dances, which is a too-rare treat. The new recruits include preppy black nerd — already a type — Marque Richardson; Asian stoner Constance Wu; and talkative skinny white guy Dustin Ingram. Brigette Davidovici is Mary Richards to Neuwirth’s Lou Grant. Twitter jokes and Internet-derived graphics mean it will all look very quaint in 10 years, or possibly two, but we’re good for now. The characters break into song every so often, in the old-fashioned way, with no excuses. Written by Brendan Milburn and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger (Javerbaum and Schlesinger wrote the score for the musical “Cry-Baby”), the songs are parodic and ironic, but also move the story forward. Director Don Scardino has directed a million episodes of television as well as the recent “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”; executive producer David Miner comes out of “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation.”

“Betas” is a Silicon Valley comedy about four associates with an algorithm. (It’s a dating app with a GPS component, but basically it’s a McGuffin). The storytelling and characters (charming idea man Joe Dinicol, nervous genius Karan Soni, disheveled older dude Jonathan C. Daly, goofy protégé Charlie Saxton) seem very much out of the Scriptwriter’s Handbook. But the piece is not without charm. Daly is likable even saying lines I regret having heard, and he and Saxton have a nice rhythm together. Web-friendly Ed Begley Jr. guests as a tech investor, who plays the flute and parties with blonds. Moby makes a cameo. Along with “Browsers” it’s one of the more traditional Amazon pilots; we’re supposed to care about the characters and their aspirations, to experience their small triumphs as our own. But you can sense the clockwork behind it.

Those Who Can’t” comes from the Denver-based comedy trio the Grawlix, who write and star. They cast themselves here as three high school teachers of unclear talent, at war with their students, and much else. It has its moments. Spanish teacher Adam Cayton-Holland is funny trying to impress school librarian Nikki Glaser by checking out books with a feminist theme, and in his insistence that his students, who grew up with New World Spanish, speak it with a Castilian lisp. But there is a sourness to much of it. Much of the pilot, which sees them plotting revenge on a student (your standard issue bully-jock) by planting drugs in his locker, is untethered even to remote likelihood. In one scene, history teacher Benjamin Roy takes his son along on a heroin buy — it’s one of those square-white-guy-embarrasses-himself-trying-to-act-street scenes — and borrows money from him in the bargain. Some will find it outrageous, I suppose, and be satisfied with that. Points for the Henry Rollins reference, though.

The stop-motion animated slacker-stoner interstellar space adventure “Dark Minions” resembles “SupaNatural” in the way it turns space opera into ordinary aggravating life. Its premise — two knuckleheads working for an evil intergalactic corporate empire, a job that fits neither their abilities nor inclinations — might have served for any number of human comedy teams; here, it’s writers John Ross Bowie and Kevin Sussman taking the leads. (Sussman’s character, perhaps not accidentally, resembles Jonah Hill; the show is squarely aimed at Generation Superbad. The pilot has the disadvantage of being rendered mostly in “animatic” sketches; in the finished scenes the puppet magic does bring a little magic the dialogue alone does not support. There is some novelty in seeing clay puppets swear, which they do a lot. But not a great one, or even a particularly good one.

Finally, there is Zombieland, adapted by writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick from their well-received 2009 film (first imagined, in fact, as a TV series). As an accidental family roaming a nation almost wholly populated by flesh-eaters, Kirk Ward, Tyler Ross, Maiara Walsh and Izabela Vidovic put on the roles formerly occupied by Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin; they work at lower wattage but they’re fine, and they can’t help having come second. Still, I find the walking dead — and “The Walking Dead” — less compelling, and less amusing, than does most of the rest of the country, and “Zombieland” doesn’t really make up the distance for me. Gory mayhem, fitful romance, vagina jokes and a wash of sentimentality notwithstanding, it stays fairly flat and never quite springs to life.