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Critic's Notebook

Amazon pilots (Part 3): The comedies

April 28, 2013|By Robert Lloyd | Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Bebe Neuwirth stars as the head of a news-linking website in the Amazon Studios musical sitcom "Browsers."
Bebe Neuwirth stars as the head of a news-linking website in the Amazon Studios… (Amazon Studios )

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.

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