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Some of the New Amazon Pilot Crop Should Bear Fruit
April 3, 2017  | By Eric Gould

Amazon Studios hasn’t carpet-bombed their subscribers with new shows at the rate that Netflix has, but they’ve matched quality with series such as Goliath and Patriot. Transparent got a blizzard of industry awards since it premiered, topped by two Emmy Awards for lead actor Jeffrey Tambor in 2015-16

Continuing with their development model, the streaming channel has recently released its annual crop of pilots so subscribers can log in and fill out surveys as to which ones they would like to see more of.

All have their merits. Two should be sure-fire audience favorites, although there’s nothing guaranteed in the streaming world of on-line polling, even for shows with established show-runners. Viewers and Amazon passed on The X-Files Chris Carter’s apocalyptic The After in 2014, while Bosch and Hand of God went ahead to series.

In the tier of shows you might enjoy, but may not be jazzed enough to find out what happens next, Budding Prospects does have appeal. Set in San Francisco in the early ‘80s, it follows a gang of under-achievers (Joel David Moore, Adam Rose, Will Sasso, right) enlisted to run an illegal pot farm in upstate California. It has a gilded pedigree, being based on a book by T. Coraghessan Boyle and directed by Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, Bad Santa, and Art School Confidential.)

Another plus is the bearded, Mephistophelian presence of Brett Gelman who was memorable and perversely schlubby in last year’s dark horse Fleabag (also an Amazon show). Budding Prospects has all the potential of a black comedy about a gang who can’t shoot straight and has delightful ‘80s references some of us can immediately relate to. (If you loved the robot performance-art wars of Survival Research Laboratories, you know what I mean.)

Oasis is a somewhat head-scratching science fiction piece about a chaplain (Richard Madden) who is convinced to leave his charity work on dying, polluted planet Earth for a small colony of pioneers on a new desert world supposedly in need of spiritual guidance. Once arrived, he’s involved in a detective-like hunt for the group’s disappeared CEO and founder. Oasis seems more cerebral and less reliant on special effects antics (no rubber alien masks, yet) of most sci-fi fare, so it may find an audience looking for adult stories within this genre.

For those looking for yet more adult cartoons, The New V.I.P.’s trenches well-worn territory of work-a-day vulgarians trapped in the corporate world who never miss the chance to go politically incorrect. While the cartoon has graphics challenging the idiosyncratic heights of the doomed 2011 Allen Gregory, it is steeped in an oddball premise of the workers surgically altering one of their own to replace the CEO they’ve just accidentally murdered. It is also stuck in the Mobius strip of comedy writers trying to devise the next outrageously offensive remark, trying to outdo 15 years of Family Guy episodes before it.

Those bring us to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a charming ‘60s Mad Men-styled period piece about a Jewish housewife who accidentally launches into a stand-up comedy career. It’s also got an impressive pedigree being written and directed by Amy Sherman-Palladino (Roseanne, Gilmore Girls) and it moves deftly from lead character Miriam Maisel’s fall from a seemingly ideal Upper West Side existence into a show biz world of seedy comedy clubs. 

Presumably, this is the Joan Rivers story in disguise, and that’s not a handicap. However, Mrs. Maisel is wrapped in a few Jewish tropes such as the loud-talking, complaining father (Tony Shalhoub). And star Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards, Manhattan) while fetching and more than capable, assumes the usual Hollywood standard of white-bread looking actors cast into ethnic leads for telegenic appeal. Fanny Brice is turning over in her grave.

In what should be the sure-shot of the bunch, The Legend of Master Legend starring John Hawkes (Deadwood, Winter’s Bone, top, right) is an eccentric and quite interesting tale of a “real-life superhero” in Las Vegas who goes out in full costume to assist the downtrodden and confront the occasional street criminal. Living out of a self-storage unit and driving an old white van, Master Legend is a favorite selfie-subject with the tourists, but not so much with his ex-wife, who he’s trying to get back with.

Digging a little deeper into the story, it seems that the series is based on the real-life Master Legend character in Orlando, Florida who may be in it as much for the fame as he is for the do-gooding.

But along with other recent streaming successes like Netflix’s The OA, The Legend of Master Legend has an oddball collection of characters and plot threads (including Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Wigham as an unwanted, violent sidekick) to honestly trail blaze some as-yet-unseen television territory, and that isn’t a common – or easy – thing to do.

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