What if potential viewers were the ones to decide whether or not a TV show gets made?
This is the loose idea behind Amazon Studios’ "pilot seasons," or the semiannual periods when it makes the first episodes of prospective shows available to watch for free, and then surveys viewers to find out if they want more — or less — of what they just saw. Amazon has been hosting these pilot seasons twice a year since 2013, but the most memorable one to date is early 2014, since it featured the pilots for both Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle.
The process certainly sounds very democratic, even if Amazon probably has a good idea of which projects it wants to pursue before viewer voting even starts. But at the very least, it offers an interesting way for the general viewing public to peek at what kinds of programming might be in the television pipeline.
This brings us to Amazon’s fall 2016 pilot season, which began on August 19 and features three different offerings: The Tick, Jean-Claude Van Johnson, and I Love Dick. All three pilots are vastly different from one another; the only thing they really have in common is that they’re all billed as comedies (which may have been a mistake on Amazon’s part, since none of them have any particularly hard punchlines to speak of). That’s not to say they aren’t all interesting, though, for one reason or another.
If you don’t have time to watch them all — or just want a quick primer going in — here’s what to expect.
I Love Dick (directed by Jill Soloway)
Based on Chris Kraus’s semi-autobiographical novel and helmed by Transparent creator Jill Soloway, I Love Dick is the latest entry in the genre that some might call "affluent miserable people being affluent and miserable around each other." This may intrigue you, or it may inspire you to skip to the next review.
If you’re still reading, here’s the gist of the show: Chris (Kathryn Hahn) is a listless filmmaker who describes herself as "straddling 40." Her dissatisfaction with her life seeps out of her every pore, especially in regard to her waning marriage. But when her husband Sylvere (Griffin Dunne) scores an academic fellowship with a famed and magnetic professor — the titular Dick, played by Kevin Bacon — Chris finds herself so drawn to Dick that she starts writing passionate letters addressed to him. When Sylvere finds out about them, he’s mostly confused — and a little turned on.
Plot-wise, there’s not much more to the pilot than that; it mostly focuses on creating the atmosphere of the couple’s malaise, and reveling in the simultaneously sleepy and pretentious town of Marfa, Texas, where the story is set. Soloway gets to show off her skill at making even the most mundane moments feel incredibly intimate, whether it’s Chris and Sylvere’s neighbor (a deadpan Roberta Colindrez) glancing at the couple through her trailer windows, or Chris fidgeting in a line for drinks as Dick smolders nearby.
Beyond Soloway’s direction and the fantastic Hahn stepping into an overdue starring role, I Love Dick doesn’t quite justify itself as the first episode of an ongoing series, especially if you — like me — haven’t read the source material. Soloway and Hahn are a team worth rooting for, though, so hopefully a future second episode will get further past the surface.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson (directed by Peter Atencio)
Jean-Claude Van Johnson is one of the most confusing comedy pilots I’ve ever seen. It’s either a completely self-aware parody of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s macho reputation, or a vanity project for Van Damme to act out his wildest black ops dreams. Or maybe it’s somewhere in between? Taken at face value, it’s almost impossible to tell.
Van Damme plays himself, and the show follows the once hugely popular action star as he wanders aimlessly around Los Angeles. But this version of Jean-Claude — who’s known as "J.C." to his friends and bitter ex-lovers — is more than just a former movie star. He’s also an undercover spy — code name "Johnson" — whose movie sets doubled as home bases.
The pilot picks up with J.C. coming out of retirement, both as an actor and Johnson. He says he’s just bored, but really, he ran into his former co-worker and ex-girlfriend (Kat Foster) and figures Johnson could win her back.
There are some undeniably fun moments, especially when Phylicia Rashad shows up as the agent who used to assign Jean-Claude both movie roles and black ops assignments. And director Peter Atencio is the perfect fit for a project like this, given his experience directing every episode of Comedy Central’s genre-bending sketch show Key and Peele, not to mention the comedy duo’s recent action comedy, Keanu.
But the loose thread that causes the whole pilot to fall apart is unfortunately the one that matters most: Van Damme himself. The actor is clearly game to make fun of his own reputation, and there are moments when it really works, like a montage where J.C. tries to complete his old workout routine and realizes with some horror that he’s a mortal being.
More often, though, Van Damme is trying so hard to act that his face doesn’t end up doing much at all. Without a strong performance at the center of an already confusing premise, the show probably doesn’t stand much of a chance.
The Tick (directed by Wally Pfister)
After writing a Tick comic book series (1988 to 1993), a Tick cartoon (1994 to 1997), and a live-action TV series (2001), Ben Edlund is taking another shot at bringing his singularly bizarre — and amongst The Tick’s fans, fiercely beloved — superhero vision to life.
Set in a world where seemingly alien superheroes are descending upon the real world, The Tick might have a real shot at success in 2016, when do-gooders in Spandex are just as much a part of the TV landscape as they ever were in movies. But the show still has some more work to do if it wants to compete in such a crowded field, with Hollywood threatening to hit peak superhero saturation.
The pilot focuses mostly on Arthur (Griffin Newman), a determined and twitchy 20-something whose origin story includes an evil spaceship hurtling straight into his strict father, immediately killing him and sparking Arthur’s lifelong obsession with finding the responsible party, and a villain dubbed "The Terror" (Preacher's Jackie Earle Haley). As he descends deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole that is trying to track The Terror down, he encounters the Tick (Peter Serafinowicz), a Smurf-blue superhero with a booming voice and penchant for pithiness who decides to recruit Arthur to be his sidekick.
The tone of The Tick isn’t quite like anything else — but it isn’t particularly focused, either. Part of the point of the show is that the aggressively silly Tick makes no sense within the context of Arthur’s bleak world, but the pilot suffers from a disappointing disconnect between Edlund’s script and Wally Pfister’s direction.
Edlund’s script, for example, vacillates between grounded realism and zippy punchlines. Pfister — whose cinematography includes the entirety of Christopher Nolan’s dark Batman trilogy — clearly struggles to navigate that dichotomy. The pilot looks slick, but punchlines that should zip end up sagging, since Pfister’s clearly far more comfortable painting Arthur’s washed-out world than playing with the Tick’s Technicolor weirdness. If Amazon decides to move forward with The Tick, the show will need to find a better balance between those two sides of itself, and fast.
You can currently watch the pilot episodes of I Love Dick, Jean-Claude Van Johnson, and The Tick for free at Amazon.
Corrected to reflect that Jackie Earle Haley was in Preacher, not Breaking Bad.