DAVID BIANCULLI

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For Amazon Prime, Prime Time Is Now
January 15, 2015  | By David Bianculli  | 4 comments
 

PASADENA, CA – As traditional networks clamor for attention at the 2015 Winter Television Critics Association press tour, Amazon has stolen the spotlight with three attention-demanding, attending-deserving moves…

Step 1 was out of the streaming video service’s control, but the perfect way to start the New Year. After launching its two best drama series, Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle, in 2014, Amazon usurped dominant rival streaming service Netflix, and every broadcast and cable network as well, by winning two Golden Globes last Sunday: One for the Transparent series itself, and one for its star, Jeffrey Tambor.

Normally, a Golden Globe is a relatively meaningless award, but this one – these two – carried measurable weight, announcing that Amazon, like Netflix before it, was a new Hollywood player deserving to sit at the grownup table, and compete in, and with, the pros.

Step 2 was the surprise announcement, smack in the middle of press tour, that Amazon has signed Woody Allen to produce his first-ever TV series. That’s huge news – and Allen, who revitalized his long and impressive career by filming abroad, is making the same move again in a figurative sense, relocating to the new territory of Amazon to explore the freedoms there.

Step 3 arrived on Thursday, with the release of the newest batch of pilot series commissioned by Amazon, for everything from children’s series and a New Yorker TV newsmagazine to a new crop of proposed dramas and comedies. In this crucial, well-timed step, there is one comedy, and one drama, that manage to equal, if not outdo, almost anything shown to TV critics to this point in the tour.

Those proposed new series, which can be watched (and commented on) by going to Amazon Prime’s Pilot Season web page, are the drama series The Man in the High Castle and the situation comedy Salem Rogers: Model of the Year 1998. TVWW readers are strongly encouraged to see them both – and, if you like what you see, to weigh in, here as well as there.

The Man in the High Castle is an adaptation of the novel by Philip K. Dick, whose name, to fans of speculative fiction, is widely and justly revered. Dick won a Hugo, science fiction’s greatest honor, for High Castle in 1963, and his other novels and short stories inspired such films as Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly.

This time, Dick is adapted by executive producer Frank Spotnitz, a veteran X-Files writer and producer who spends equal time here delving into depth of character and importance of production design. He wrote the teleplay for The Man in the High Castle, while another executive producer on the project, David Semel, directed it. (Semel’s other directorial credits include American Horror Story and The Strain.)

The Man in the High Castle is set in an alternate reality, a Dick specialty, in which the Germans and Japanese were the victors in WWII. Alexa Davalas stars as Juliana, a young woman who is drawn into the dangerous world of the Resistance after her little sister entrusts her with a highly inflammatory canister of film. It contains images of the Allies winning WWII – images we viewers recognize from vintage newsreels, but which, to Juliana, are wholly unfamiliar. Other stars include Rufus Sewell and Rupert Evans, and supporting players include DJ Qualls.

It’s a trip into an imaginative, disturbing world, no less so today than when Dick imagined it more than 50 years ago. Instead of a Civil War-era U.S. divided by North and South, this particular postwar United States is divided by East and West. On the East is the Greater Nazi Reich, presided over in 1962 by an ailing, balding Adolf Hitler; on the West are the Japanese Pacific States. In the middle, a volatile Neutral Zone, which is where the show’s primary characters become drawn.

The pilot is a delight, from its tiniest details (insignia on the payphones and advertisements on the billboards) to its grandest of themes about identity, loyalty and destiny. Some scenes are chilling, as when snowflakes suddenly begin to fall as two characters are talking – except they aren’t snowflakes drifting down, but ashes from a nearby hospital. As one character explains offhandedly to the other, it’s a Tuesday, which is when the hospital routinely disposes of the crippled and the terminally ill.

That’s not the sort of scene you forget. It is, however, precisely the sort of scene that makes you want to see more.

In a much lighter vein, there’s also a desire to see much more of Salem Rogers, the new comedy written by actress, and former model, Lindsey Stoddart. It stars Leslie Bibb as a former supermodel emerging from more than a decade in rehab to reclaim her throne at the center of pop culture – only to find pop culture changed and herself forgotten, except for her former personal assistant (Rachel Dratch), who remembers her only because she still is traumatized by memories of her, even after writing successful books drawing on the experiences.

Stoddart has exercised all manner of demons here, in a very amusing way – and Dratch, as the put-upon former assistant, is so effectively showcased here that it partly makes up for the callous way in which she was phased out of NBC’s 30 Rock after initially presented as one of the core players.

The secret weapon here, though, is Bibb, who, before and even after sparring on the WB series Popular, has been in search of just the right role to allow her to take full advantage of both her comedy instincts and her movie-star looks. Salem Rogers is precisely that role, and that vehicle – and playing, as she’s described here, “a 36-year-old whorenado,” she embodies the kind of TV character that deserves notice, even before getting laughs in a climactic runway scene that involves actual, though tasteful, nudity.

Mark Waters directed the Salem Rogers pilot, based on Stoddart’s script, and both Harry Hamlin and Jane Kaczmarek have wonderful guest spots in what could, and should, be recurring supporting roles.

Salem Rogers and The Man in the High Castle ought to part of Amazon’s upcoming schedule. They’re not only the best of the new stuff Amazon has to offer – as we start the New Year, they’re among the best any network has to offer...

 
 
 
 
 
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4 Comments
 
 
Franklyn Rabow
You picked two of my three favorites. The third is The New Yorker.
About Salem: So we have The New Yorker and Salem Rogers side by side - Yin and Yang? Why not? Stimulate the "Little Grey Cells" with the New Yorker; then pop the synapses with Rachel Dratch & Leslie Bibb. A great way to get a good night's sleep: laugh and increase your oxygen intake; smile and relax your facial and body muscles. This is comedy for adults who know that bringing down the mighty (or former mighty in this case) is really a hoot.
As for The New Yorker: for those who don't subscribe to the magazine, it is a welcome refuge from all the cops, wonder kids, and "reality" TV programs.
I have a feeling that Salem Rogers and The Man in the High Castle will be picked up, or maybe just a hope.
Jan 19, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
Angela
Just a quick comment to say I thought The Man In The High Castle was fantastic. Such an unusual storyline, so that I was totally engaged in it.
I'm used to new shows having some problems finding their footing at least during the first few episodes, but this pilot ran on all cylinders, and knew exactly what it wanted to accomplish and did so perfectly.

The characters seemed completely real to me. The photography was beautiful, and completely realistic. I do hope we get to see more of this well executed show.
Jan 16, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
jennifer varela
yes!! more of Salem Roger, please! Bibb was hysterical as was Dratch!!
Jan 16, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
Angela
Wow! I'm sold. And I'm so glad you wrote about these two new shows. I would have missed them if not. I'm also glad we have a comedy verses a dark drama to choose from (though I will certainly watch both).
I watch more drama than probably most people do, but sometimes I really yearn for something a lot lighter.
How nice to have choices. I will report back if I'm at all able to. (life tends to get in the way a lot for me). Thank you.
Jan 15, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
 
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