clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Amazon’s deal with Woody Allen is historic — and remarkably stupid

Woody Allen performs with his New Orleans Jazz band in Los Angeles in 2013.
Woody Allen performs with his New Orleans Jazz band in Los Angeles in 2013.
Mark Davis/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Amazon's deal with Woody Allen to produce a TV show for the Amazon Prime streaming service is everything that's wrong with the current TV arms race.

Let's leave aside for a moment the horrific accusations made against Allen of molesting his 7-year-old adopted daughter. (I promise we'll get back there.)

The question here is — why on Earth did Amazon want to make a TV series with Woody Allen? The writer/director has shown no real affection for the medium, even though he got his start in show business writing for it. He's made some solid-to-great films in the last decade, sure, but TV requires a very different skill set, one Allen doesn't particularly possess.

Even Woody Allen isn't sure he should be making a TV show

What's more, Allen himself admits this, in an interview with Deadline in which he says he's "regretted every second" since he signed the deal with Amazon.

"I never watch television. I don't know the first thing about it," he said. Then, later: "It's been so hard for me. I had the cocky confidence, well, I'll do it like I do a movie ... it'll be a movie in six parts. Turns out, it's not. For me, it has been very, very difficult. I've been struggling and struggling and struggling. I only hope that when I finally do it — I have until the end of 2016 — they're not crushed with disappointment because they're nice people and I don't want to disappoint them. I am doing my best."

Sure, Allen is famously self-deprecating. But what he said to Deadline reads like the words of a man who really does fear he's in over his head. For as much as movie people might not like to admit it, TV and film are vastly different media, and they require vastly different talents. Most great TV showrunners stumble when they try to direct their first films. Why should great directors automatically be able to make great TV?

The answer for why Amazon wants to be in business with Allen is the dark flip side of my argument for why ratings increasingly don't matter to niche outfits. When all a network cares about is media buzz and potential awards attention, it's easy enough to pre-game that system by signing big names who will generate buzz by virtue of having big names. As House of Cards has shown us, you don't even need to make an amazing show for this to happen.

In essence, this is the niche broadcasting version of making a movie based on some beloved superhero. Everybody involved knows the hype that surrounds the product will eventually stand in well enough for the product itself.

Every network is doing this

It's not just Amazon that's infected with this way of thinking. As I said in my earlier piece, ratings are increasingly less important to pay cable and streaming outlets, because pay cable and streaming outlets are more interested in attracting subscribers to pay monthly or annual fees. And a big part of that attraction, as David Sims argues in The Atlantic, is building an attractive brand viewers will want to subscribe to. This sort of thinking is creeping out to other networks, and it almost always plays off of TV's massive inferiority complex when it compares itself to film.

No one would confuse The Strain with great TV (though it's occasionally fun), but FX put it on the air, among other reasons, so it could list Guillermo del Toro among its stable of creators. Boardwalk Empire landed on the air as a series with a pilot directed by Martin Scorsese, pre-selling it in a way that obscured its very real problems. As much as I'm looking forward to the revival of Twin Peaks, it's not as if TV series revivals have a great track record. And even if I love HBO's Togetherness, there's no way that show ever would have launched if it wasn't from a couple of acclaimed indie film directors.

This trend has been exacerbated by Netflix and Amazon, particularly the latter, which has never met a person best known for work in another medium it couldn't wait to throw money at. Some of these series (Alpha House, from Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau) have been mediocre. Some (Mozart in the Jungle, from a variety of indie film stalwarts, including Jason Schwartzman) have been good.

But all of them have floundered through weaker early episodes that suggest all involved parties were figuring out what a TV show even looks like, trying to break up a movie or longer story into chunks, which often results in clunky, confused storytelling.

Plus, all of this ignores that both services' most acclaimed, breakout series — Orange Is the New Black and Transparent — come from people who have worked extensively in TV: Jenji Kohan and Jill Soloway, respectively. In both cases, women who have TV in their blood were figuring out the possibilities of working within a new format, where they knew viewers would likely have seen all of the prior episodes.

What makes these shows so exciting is not that they're "different" from TV, but that they're built atop a solid foundation of TV-ness, before stretching off in fun, new directions.

Why a Woody Allen TV show is unnecessary

There's no reason for a Woody Allen TV show. It would be wonderful if he made a great one, because the world can always use more terrific TV shows. But I find it hard to believe he's somehow going to top the great Woody Allen-esque TV show we already have on the air in FX's Louie (a series that, let's remember, struggles to find viewers). That show's tales of New York life and romantic frustration beautifully encapsulate many of Allen's pet themes in microcosm.

And Louie also comes from a man whose name doesn't lug around with it the whiff of radioactivity. Allen is never going to be punished for the things he's accused of, because they are impossible to prove in a court of law. So his accusers turned him over to the court of public opinion, hoping that public outrage would sink his career.

The pronounced anger that ensued over the Amazon deal is mostly because this simply failed to happen. Nobody who could give Allen lots of money to make movies (or TV shows) turned out to really care, the second it became financially expedient to not care. It's horrifying and craven, and it's easy to see why sexual assault victims are offended.

But Allen's successes in other fields have blinded executives to all of the other reasons that giving him a TV show is a terrible idea. Many movie directors are now opting to move to TV, but there's still a pervasive opinion that television occupies a second-place status to film. There's no good reason to think film people understand TV any better than those who've actually worked in the medium all these years.

If Amazon truly wants to make groundbreaking TV, it shouldn't be trying to sign movie directors. It should be trying to find people who understand the form and what makes it tick.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.