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Bosch isn’t great TV, but that’s why it might be the hit Amazon desperately needs

Titus Welliver plays Harry Bosch in the Amazon show Bosch. Creative naming strategy there.
Titus Welliver plays Harry Bosch in the Amazon show Bosch. Creative naming strategy there.
Amazon Studios
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 original programming can't get no respect — at least from the people it's ostensibly there to attract. The reason is simple: as far as the world is concerned, Netflix is the king of online streaming, and all other platforms mere pretenders. But a new series, Bosch, adapted from Michael Connelly's series of detective novels, could change all that — despite in many ways being the Seattle tech giant's least innovative show to date. (You can watch Bosch here. In fact, you can even watch the first episode if you're not a Prime subscriber.)



To be clear, in terms of strict subscriber numbers Amazon and Netflix are pretty close. As of Netflix's most recent numbers, they had 53.1 million subscribed. According to a report by Re/code, Amazon Prime has somewhere between 40 and 50 million subscribers — fewer, but not many fewer. But Amazon Prime is something many people buy for the discount shipping benefits. Making your streaming video service a throw in to a customer loyalty plan for a basically separate business isn't a great way to make waves in Hollywood.

To its credit, at the very top of the prestige hierarchy, Amazon is doing okay. Netflix's Orange Is the New Black was nominated for a host of Emmys last year, but won only a handful. Amazon's Transparent, meanwhile, was one of the most acclaimed new shows of last year and just won two major Golden Globe Awards, including Best Series — Comedy or Musical.

Get beyond the top choices, however, and the disparity starts to show. Netflix backs up Orange with House of Cards and Arrested Development and Bojack Horseman and a fleet of British imports. Amazon backs up Transparent mostly with shows you haven't heard of, like Alpha House and Mozart in the Jungle. Critics have largely been kind to these shows, but as far as public perception goes, they might as well not exist.

Neither Netflix nor Amazon releases viewership figures, but by every metric we have to go on, Netflix's shows trounce Amazon's in terms of public awareness. Netflix programs like Bojack or Marco Polo boast thousands more IMDb ratings than Transparent (Amazon's most successful show) does, and IMDb is a service Amazon owns. The same goes at nearly every other site where people rate TV shows against each other, across the internet.

The perception, then, has solidified — Netflix has won the streaming wars and is gunning for HBO. Amazon is fruitlessly playing catch-up.

Thus, Amazon's next big move is to get back to its roots — by adapting a book.

Back to basics

Famously, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos didn't particularly care about bookselling when he started the company. He was just looking for something that would be easy and relatively cost effective to ship, and books fit that bill nicely. The company quickly began expanding into other areas of shopping, turning into the behemoth it is today.

Arguably, that "everything store" philosophy is what has hurt the company's streaming video service. Netflix does one thing really, really well. Amazon is attempting to do everything pretty well, and that means that its streaming video player is solid but no great shakes compared to Netflix's, even if Amazon's library of content is (arguably) stronger and more diverse.

But in the public imagination, Amazon is still primarily known as a bookstore. That makes Bosch a natural fit. When the service debuted the series' original pilot for fans to vote on (via Amazon's somewhat cloudy "pilot season" process by which it picks new shows with some unspecified level of user input), it was the runaway winner in terms of both votes and average ratings. The readers of the world want skillful adaptations of their favorite books. It makes total sense to turn to Amazon to find them. (Not for nothing, Amazon has also produced an acclaimed pilot adaptation of Philip K. Dick's classic alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle.)

"[Amazon] seemed like the logical place. It was sort of an immediate match, given how many of Michael's books they sell," Eric Overmyer, who's acting as the series' chief producer and showrunner, told me.

Bosch is also Amazon's first series entry in the crowded, complicated world of TV drama, and it shows. There are some nifty elements here — particularly in the show's portrayal of parts of Los Angeles that don't always show up on other cop shows. Titus Welliver does excellent work as the title character. But the show also suffers from the fact that there are a lot of cop shows in the history of TV, and even a pretty good one like Bosch will need a little something extra to stand out.

Amazon's woes here are remarkably similar to those of Netflix, actually. Both services seem to think that simply grabbing recognizable names and putting them in the vague proximity of intriguing topics will be enough to make great television.

In the case of Bosch, that means having actors like Welliver (who's been on everything from Deadwood to The Good Wife) and Lance Reddick (of The Wire and Fringe fame), as well as having Overmyer (formerly of The Wire and Treme himself) shepherd the project to the digital screen.

The same philosophy extends to the very idea of adapting Connelly's best-selling, generally enjoyable novels. Yeah, it's a good idea, but there's little sense of deep, abiding passion here. When listening to the people involved in the show talk about the series and its characters, it often seems as if they could be talking about any show, any character.

"He's not just a hardass with a white hat," Welliver told me. "He makes mistakes, and when he makes a mistake, he backs up and tries to figure it out. He has above-average intelligence. But he's also a creature of habit. He is kind of out of step with things. He doesn't know what Hulu is. He still carries a flip-phone. He's a lover of jazz. He listens to vinyl, and he listens to the radio."

Even though that's a fairly accurate adaptation of Connelly's character, it feels like a quickly baked remix of a bunch of detectives and ideas you've seen before. That extends to the whole project. It's almost as if Amazon is attempting to reverse-engineer a great drama by filling in the blanks.

Into the middle

Yet I don't want to tear apart Bosch too much. The series finds a propulsive gear as it goes along through its first few hours (I've seen four). There's a definite sense that all involved have at least thought about what it is that makes Connelly's books and the character of Harry Bosch so beloved. And there's a finely honed sense of place in the Los Angeles setting.

"We see a lot of LA and Old Hollywood," Overmyer said. "What we don't see a lot of is the shining west side that we've seen in Entourage. ... There's a lot of places that don't get seen, so we're trying to poke our nose in those places."

And the irony here is that Bosch might be a less idiosyncratic program than any of Amazon's prior ones, but that also means it stands the best chance of breaking out as a hit. That propulsive quality the series accrues suggests how easy it would be to spend an afternoon burning through its 10 hours, getting more and more involved in them. And it, more than a lot of shows, really feels like a novel for television. Individual episodes feel less like standalone hours than chapters in a book, increasing the sense of huddling under the covers with a flashlight, turning pages rapidly.

"When you buy a book, you don't just buy a chapter at a time. You buy the whole thing, and you read as much as you want," Overmyer said.

The hit Amazon needs

A breakout hit, of course, is something Amazon could desperately use. Transparent might be one of TV's best shows, but it's also the very definition of a niche program. Muted comedies about affluent Los Angelenos aren't everybody's cup of tea. But Bosch is different. A well-done cop show that doesn't reach for too much and mostly accomplishes what it sets out to do is the sort of thing just about anyone can have on in the background.

The simple truth of the matter is that TV's biggest hits are rarely TV's best shows. For the most part, TV runs on the solid and stolid, on shows that aim to stay in the range of a B grade, never daring so much that they might wildly succeed or horribly fail. It's easy to forget that for so many viewers, TV is still a thing meant to fill in gaps between other conversations.

Overmyer mentions to me that it's nice to be working on a series where not every plot point needs to be repeated ad infinitum.

"I think a lot of network television fails because it over-explains itself as it goes. I'm going to tell you what you're about to see. While you're seeing it, I'm going to explain what you're seeing, and after you've seen it, I'm going to explain what you saw. And you just go, 'I know where this train is going as soon as it leaves the station,'" he said.

And that's true. Bosch does a minimum of hand-holding. But, really, it doesn't have to. It's playing with dramatic beats so familiar that most Americans are all but born knowing them. The triumph of Bosch isn't that it might push television forward; it's that it might move streaming more toward the mushy middle, where it will eventually have to land to survive.

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