Amazon’s Pilot Season is a refreshing take on the long standing, yet slowly dying, pilot process of the TV industry. Every year, major networks and cable channels order pilots for a bunch of potential new series in order to fill out their upcoming lineups. A pilot is, in essence, a demo of the series as a whole. Pilot episodes are often used for the actual show itself, serving as the first episode of the respective series. If you have ever wondered why the first episode of a network show is often too on the nose, it is because the episodes are almost all pilots, which are used to sell the network on the potential of the entire series, rather than serving to inspire audiences to watch the next episode. Amazon turned the pilot process into a marketing shtick for their original content in 2013 when they ordered 14 pilots, which they made publicly available, for free, to all Amazon customers (not just Prime). After watching the pilots, audiences could even partake in surveys, which helped determine which shows were picked up. Though the final choice was not left up to said surveys, bringing fans into the pilot process itself was a smart marketing gimmick. The first run of pilots in 2013 were by no means spectacular, but in early 2014 Amazon struck gold with 2 bonafide hits in their 2nd Pilot Season with critical darlings Transparent, and Mozart in the Jungle.
This August, for their 8th Pilot Season, Amazon focused on comedies. Having just finished all 3, I have some impressions to impart.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson
Starring real life 80s/90s Martial Arts film Icon Jean-Claude Van Damn, as himself, Jean-Claude Van Johnson imagines the aging Actor as a secret agent who uses his film roles as cover for his dangerous missions. Handled with a great balance of stylistic cinematic action and absurdist comedy, Jean-Claude Van Johnson was a thoroughly hilarious pilot. I would like to see more of the series and hope that it is picked up. There is a lot of potential in the way the story ties the declining quality of his roles to the stresses of his personal life and dangers of his secret work. In particular I enjoyed the action movie version of Huck Finn that Van Damn had to make in order to provide a cover story for his return to the secret agent job. Mostly, I was impressed by the use of callbacks between Van Damn’s 2 jobs. Like when his Director criticized the spinning slow motion fighting 1 enemy at a time style of Van Damn’s older films before Van Damn himself ended up in that exact circumstance (spinning slow motion 1 at a time fight scene) in his “real” secret agent work. The series was thoroughly funny and, somehow, made Jean-Claude Van Damn a likable character.
I barely remember the cartoon and original Fox series for The Tick. I remember the costume, I remember “Spoon!”, and I remember the mundane sidekick Arthur. Other than that, I had little to call back on when watching the pilot for Amazon’s new take on the franchise. After watching The Tick, I immediately purchased the first episode of the 2001 live action TV series that preceded it, so that I could watch it for context. I have to say that while I have some small gripes about the new iteration (mainly that the much paler blue costume is a bit distracting), overall I enjoyed the hell out of it. The series isn’t as out and out funny as the original, but in my own personal opinion, that is for the better. This iteration of The Tick has its fair sure of comic humor, but it is just 1 layer on top of a larger ambition. This iteration of the franchise presents a truly terrifying villain (as portrayed by Jackie Earle Haley who just came off of a great role in AMC’s Preacher), and some real darkness at the soul of its tale, making it a much darker comedy than the original slapstick sitcom. Their are interesting plot points at play as well. Arthur suffers from a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that stems from a tragic past event, and there is even the loose implication that The Tick might actually be a manifestation of Arthur’s frustrations at his own lack of power (ala Fight Club, though actually in the world fighting crime as a separate entity), which is a possibility I found extremely intriguing. Of the 3 pilots presented in Amazon’s 8th Pilot Season, The Tick was my favorite.
I Love Dick
That brings us to the last pilot of this Pilot Season event, I Love Dick. I Love Dick is a completely competent, and well acted high concept cerebral comedy that frankly bored the hell out of me. While the most traditional of the 3 pilots as a television series, it also stands apart from the others as being the least fun and interesting. The highlight of the entire episode is Kevin Bacon’s charismatic portrayal of the titular character during a scene in a restaurant in which his character destroys the emotional security of our protagonist by calling her competency into question and forcing her to face some psychological defenses she might have built up in order to protect herself from actual failure. The scene is harsh, and emotional, and, unfortunately, the only part of the entire episode that caught my full attention. If you want a more cerebral, though also often boring, comedy about more adult issues than those faced in the other 2 pilots I described, than I Love Dick might be a good fit for you. For me personally, I am glad I watched it, if only for that scene, though I have no interest in returning to the series beyond my brief stay.
In conclusion, I feel that Amazon had a great Pilot Season. I was able to find something of merit in all 3 pilots, as well as a lot of interest in returning to more episodes for 2 of them. In fact, I would even say that the pilots for The Tick and Jean-Claude Van Johnson were my favorite Amazon studios experiences yet, which bodes well for the streaming giant. My biggest complaint about the whole affair? Amazon’s Instant Video user experience is still, and by far, the worst of the big 3 (the others being Netflix, and Hulu). I would even go as far as to say that, outside of Yahoo Screen (R.I.P. Community), exploring content on Amazon is the most annoying experience I have had with legitimate streaming services. Aamazon is doing a great job on their original content right now, but they desperately need to re-explore their applications. I rarely explore Amazon’s offerings, and this is largely due to the horrid user experience. I have yet to finish the first season of The Man in the High Castle, which I actually really want to continue, just not enough to deal with Amazon’s UI.
Thank you for reading this review, if you have anything to add, good or bad, leave a comment on this article. Stay tuned to TVEnthusiast for more coverage of all of your favorite shows, which we hope includes full orders for The Tick and Jean-Claude Van Johnson.