Tuned In

It’s Not TV, It’s Amazon; What Do the Site’s New Pilots Offer That the Networks Don’t?

Like big networks and premium channels, streaming programmers need a brand. So far, Amazon's involves raw, cable-style laughs and something for the kids.

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For the past week now, Amazon Instant Video has been streaming 14 pilots–eight for adult comedies, six for kids’ shows–for free viewing and, in a way, beta testing by its audience. You watch (free, at the site or through the Amazon Video mobile app), you rate, and later this year, Amazon Originals uses your feedback to decide which shows to pick up to series.

Giving the audience a chance to judge all the pilots before deciding to pick any up to series is a refreshing change from the usual network strategy of winnowing pilots down behind closed doors. The crowdsourcing aspect of the project may be a little overrated, since Amazon is being vague as to just how much influence the number of reviews and customer ratings will have; it’s reserving the right to exercise its own judgment.

(And well it should. As Alan Sepinwall points out, focus grouping has led the old networks to make some lousy shows in the past. And the number of views or stars does not necessarily indicate which shows will have the most intense followings, like to actually return to watch more episodes.)

But with other outlets already in the online-original business–Hulu and Netflix, e.g.–this pioneer group is the first glimpse at what Amazon’s identity as a programmer might be. Brands matter in TV: big broadcasters cultivate personalities, cable networks cater to niches, and even the premium pay channels strive to distinguish themselves. (In broad strokes, HBO has been the “What would movies look like as TV series?” channel, Showtime the “sexy entertainment” channel, etc.)

And Amazon? Where Netflix made its first splash (not counting the import Lillyhammer) with the HBO-esque drama House of Cards, Amazon is starting in the relatively bite-sized genres of comedy and kids’ shows. Which is not to say it’s no-budget TV: Garry Trudeau’s political satire Alpha House nabbed John Goodman, and the production values are more cable–basic cable, at least–than YouTube. (Some of the animated shows, however, have incomplete CGI at the pilot stage.)

The sensibility of the sitcoms owes a lot to the style of FX, Comedy Central, and Adult Swim. Animated sci-fi-com Dark Minions and news parody Onion News Empire each have shades of Archer’s scathing genre-workplace comedy; Supanatural, an animated comedy about two monster-hunter mall workers, is raunchily funny in the style of Ugly Americans and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. What you don’t have here is drama-shaded dark comedy along the lines of Showtime and HBO; Amazon is out for straight laughs, albeit often with pay-cable-level profanity. (Arguably, Betas, about young software entrepreneurs, has a bit of a How to Make It in America vibe, but it’s a good bit broader.)

My favorite of the comedy pilots is not the most consistent, but it is the least categorizable. The closest comparison I can think of for Browsers, a musical set at a Huffington Post-like website–with Bebe Neuwirth playing either Arianna or a vampire–is the work of Joss Whedon in Dr. Horrible mode. Which is not to say that it’s as polished; when it’s bad, it’s excruciating. (Someone, someday will write a great song about tweeting, but you will not find it here.)

But I like what it’s trying, the best songs are playfully hilarious, and it manages to satirize online aggregation mills treating its ambitious characters with heart. (The composers, The Daily Show’s David Javerbaum and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, have collaborated on projects including the exquisite A Colbert Christmas.) I was most disappointed in Alpha House, a flat, obvious satire aiming at broad-as-a-barn targets, and Zombieland–as a movie adaption, the biggest brand name, but beyond the opening sequence, it’s undead on the smaller screen. Most of the others, though, I’d give at least another episode or two.

And ultimately the most distinctive thing Amazon does could be its kids’ shows, one of the first genres to bring streaming video into the home. Not only are kids natural adopters of mobile devices (Tuned In Jr. Jr. watched much of Malcolm in the Middle on Netflix for iPad last summer), but I know plenty of parents who would love more commercial-free, quality online video options for their kids. The half-dozen here are promising, including the dreamlike animated Tumbleaf, aimed at younger kids.

But this is Amazon, which means it’s not about my review; it’s about yours. If you’ve watched any of Amazon’s pilots, what did you like most? And what kinds of TV would you like to see the new online programmers provide that TV-on-TV isn’t giving you?