Since it started making original programming, Amazon has been releasing the first episodes of potential new series online. This was initially framed as a tech company gambit, a disruption of the entrenched TV business’ inefficient way of doing things. Amazon, unlike old-fashioned networks, would take the pilot process to the people.
That isn’t quite how it has worked out. Amazon has continued to put its pilots online but for no discernable reason except publicity (as generated by articles like this). Just like an old-fashioned TV network, Amazon does what it wants with its shows, efficiency and viewer opinion be damned. Who could have watched the first episode of Amazon’s Southern-fried Fitzgerald series Zelda and thought, more please? But a whole season of Zelda is what we got anyway. Meanwhile, Woody Allen and David E. Kelly got to skip pilot-making altogether, to good (Kelly’s Goliath) and bad (Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes) effect, while Jill Soloway, the woman single-handedly responsible for establishing Amazon as a place to watch TV and not buy TVs, diapers, and instant pots, had to make a pilot for her second series, I Love Dick.
Amazon’s pilot ploy may not be an occasion for the audience to play network programmer as promised, but it is an occasion to think about the nature of ambition—or maybe that’s just me. What, exactly, is a streaming show supposed to be these days? And in the absence of a better answer than “anything that pleases a tranche of subscribers,” are Amazon’s shows less ambitious, or at least less coherent, than they might be if the answer was “on brand”? When the sky is the limit, most Amazon shows are still puttering around near the ground.
This Friday, Amazon put five new pilots online: Budding Prospects, a half-hour comedy based on a T.C. Boyle novel; The Legend of Master Legend, about a middle-aged man who dresses up as a superhero; Oasis, a sci-fi drama; and, last but certainly not least, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s hourlong period comedy about a Jewish housewife who becomes a stand-up comedian. (There’s also an animated series so middling, I will not mention it again.)
The two half-hour comedies don’t quite know what they are. Budding Prospects is set in 1984 San Francisco and focuses on three lost guys who cluelessly agree to farm a nascent grow operation in Mendocino. It’s an affable tangle of commercial and artistic impulses that feels like a network comedy desperately trying to be sophisticated, or a sophisticated comedy that rewrote itself to have the mass appeal of a network comedy.
The Legend of Master Legend is weirder, starring John Hawkes as a middle-aged man who walks the Las Vegas strip every day in costume trying to be helpful, needing a sense of purpose more than anyone needs his assistance. Despite being about superheroes, the show is not immediately tired, but it is a little fuzzy, caught between character sketch and gonzo comedy.
The drama, Oasis, based on Michel Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things, stars Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden as a priest who travels to a new colony on a distant planet where something menacing is afoot.* It is a polished, well-made, not particularly revelatory genre show along the lines of Amazon’s other polished but not particularly revelatory genre dramas, Man in the High Castle and Goliath. You’ve seen something like it before, but it won’t hurt to watch it again.
And then there is Amy Sherman-Palladino’s promising period dramedy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. With it, the creator of Gilmore Girls and Bunheads tweaks her trademarks in ways both little and significant. Stepping into the role of fast-talking dame who uses her chatter to obscure what has, for Sherman-Palladino, previously been WASP angst but is now Jewish shpilkes is Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards, Crisis in Six Scenes, a little earthier than Lauren Graham or Sutton Foster) as Miriam “Midge” Maisel, an upper-class Jewish housewife. (If Mrs. Maisel gets picked up, Amazon will be home to the two most Jewish shows on television, the other being Transparent. Mrs. Maisel begins with a punchline about treyf shrimp eggrolls and is greatly concerned with a rabbi showing up for Yom Kippur break fast.)
Midge, a Bryn Mawr graduate, lives in a classic six on the Upper West Side with her two children and her husband Joel (Michael Zegen), a businessman who wants to be a stand-up comic.* Like Lorelai Gilmore and Bunheads’ Michelle Simms, she’s a whirligig, a charmer, a fast talker. Unlike them, she’s stuck in the 1950s and so puts all her energy into her husband, who fancies he’s a hipster. Midge is constantly in motion, trying to give Joel the life she think he wants. She wakes up before him every morning to do her face and then climbs back into bed, so he thinks she woke up like that; she measures the size of her body parts daily; and she’s forever lugging perfect briskets over to the comedy club, so Joel can get a good time for open mic night.
But Midge has somehow failed to notice that Joel’s an unoriginal, a guy who steals jokes from Bob Newhart. She’s the one with the talent, which is eventually revealed in a bravura, impromptu, personal stand-up set. (This is not meant as an insult, but Midge’s set reminded me of the very first number in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: That was decent, but can you do it again?) Sherman-Palladino’s performative characters often comedically filibuster the audience, they just do so while grandstanding in the town diner, not on a stage. But the stage actually helps corral Sherman-Palladino’s more madcap impulses. Like Midge, she has to save her best stuff for the routine, and that introduces a welcome streak of discipline, both verbal and thematic, into Sherman-Palladino’s charming but manic work. I hope Amazon has already decided to pick this one up.
*Correction, March 20: This piece originally misspelled Michael Zegen’s last name.
*Correction, March 22: It also misspelled Michel Faber’s first name.