Critic's Notebook: 'Love You More,' 'Sea Oak' Lead Amazon's Lame Duck Pilot Season
None of Amazon's new half-hour pilots is going to be the next 'Game of Thrones,' but they're all distinctive and female-driven.
Welcome to the ironically timed Lame Duck Amazon Winter 2017 Pilot Season.
Depending on your perspective, the three half-hour pilots the streamer dropped last week are either:
a) fortuitously timed, because they're three female-driven comedies, two from women who would be first-time series creators — and Amazon is smarting from the departure of top executive Roy Price amid allegations of sexual harassment that have sparked concerns about the company's very corporate culture and, in the case of the perhaps-prematurely-canceled Good Girls Revolt, its every programming decision.
b) horribly timed, because they're three relatively small, relatively personal comedies without established brand names that were developed as part of a creative regime no longer in place at Amazon. If the streaming outlet's new programming edict is an attempt to find the next Game of Thrones, The Climb, Love You More and Sea Oak are practically the antithesis of that expressed goal.
There is no blockbuster hit in this group.
There also is probably no Emmy winner in this group.
Instead, the three new Amazon pilots are all distinctive and distinctly niche properties with price tags low enough that it's possible that you could make 10 seasons apiece for these three shows for the astronomical amount that Amazon has reportedly spent merely on the rights to The Lord of the Rings and associated J.R.R. Tolkien properties, an astoundingly on-the-nose stab at "the next Game of Thrones" if ever there were one.
If these three pilots feel like a somewhat whiplash-inducing take on development, note also that they're three shows focusing on contemporary economic struggles and plucky low-income strivers and they come after Amazon's cancellations of the tony and opulent The Last Tycoon and Z.
To me, clarifying some sense of the Amazon brand would be really admirable for the company's new regime, unless its goal is just to take the Netflix "Our brand is ubiquity" approach, which doesn't feel sustainable to me.
There's actually a lot of unity to the three new pilots, and they'd make an interesting 90-minute block if that were the way Amazon programmed things. Here are my quickie capsule reviews from favorite to least favorite, acknowledging that all have potential and all have flaws:
Love You More — I tend not to respond to Michael Patrick King's sensibility, so I'm crediting the Sex and the City mastermind with helping star Bridget Everett deliver her vision and getting out of the way. Even then, the parts of the pilot I found least effective were the most sitcom-y, and there's a tendency toward the sitcom-y because Everett's personality is almost uncontainably big. The pilot showcases a lot of Everett's skills, including her powerful voice and her utter lack of self-consciousness, and I'm sure some viewers will respond to the sloppy awkwardness of her character's sex life, the perfunctory conversations with her gay best friend and lots and lots of deliberations about and examinations of her breasts. What I responded to in the pilot was something pilot director Bobcat Goldthwait has always done well in his features, namely starting off with what look like caricatures and quickly finding compassion for them. Everett's Karen works as a counselor at an independent living facility for adults with Down syndrome, and the immediate worry is that this will be a gimmick, but several of the residents have actual developed roles and Everett's work with her co-stars is excellent, both sweet and funny. I was also vaguely astounded by how good Loni Anderson is as Karen's lonely roommate, which is entirely unfair to Anderson, an Emmy-nominated comedy star. The chance that Love You More could be a comeback vehicle for Anderson as more than just a big-haired curiosity is really appealing, because she does a lot with very little shtick here. My hope would be that Goldthwait sticks around long-term, since his empathy cutting through King's cattiness and aloofness is what made the pilot work for me. This feels like the kind of show where I like the pilot and turn on it almost immediately, but doesn't mean I didn't admire the weird blend of the pilot.
Sea Oak — Created by George Saunders and directed by Hiro Murai, the Sea Oak pilot — Amazon already has Red Oaks, which makes this title a problem — is almost the inverse of Love You More. Where Goldthwait finds compassion buried inside a messiness that mirrors the life of his main characters, Murai's bordering-on-absurdist depiction of anonymous Rust Belt poverty is precise and funny and weird and just a bit too calculated for any heart to emerge, and that's what's lacking. Goldthwait can't help but get inside his characters to show you their needs, but Murai remains resolutely on the outside of this story of an unassuming woman (Glenn Close), who lives in a dangerous project with her two single-mom nieces and her tableau model nephew, at least until she doesn't anymore. Live, that is. It happens that I really dig the pilot's oddball exteriority, which is almost non-stop "Well, that's conceptually neat" ideas and compositions. The nephew's workplace, basically a human diorama meets strip club museum managed by James Van Der Beek, is a remarkable conceit. Jane Levy, as one of the nieces, has a deadpan delivery ("What's a bootstrap?" "It's like a strap on a boot, ya doof") that remains a thing of calculated beauty. Close's mousey Aunt Bernie is a mini-masterpiece of meekness and then, in the last 10 minutes, something very amusingly different. There are shots from the pilot — the haphazard arrangement of grocery carts littering an empty parking lot, a graveyard of abandoned toilets on a rural shortcut — that I'm still thinking about days after watching. Sea Oak is interested in its characters and their circumstance, but I don't think it has very much affection for them and that left me at an appreciative remove. Long-term, I'd still bet on Sea Oak being a better show than Love You More.
The Climb — I don't think The Climb is a great pilot, but I think star and creator Diarra Kilpatrick has a voice and a mindset that are worth supporting, and I'd be more than willing to go on at least a brief journey with her as she tries to shape it into a TV series. The comparisons to HBO's Insecure are too easy and obvious, but The Climb isn't opposed to easy and obvious when it comes to stuff like its handling of social media celebrity and the main character's resistance to growing up and taking responsibility for her life. Nothing in Nia's (Kilpatrick) profession or dating life as presented in the pilot is interesting, but the pilot is basically the character deciding to leave those things behind in her climb to greatness, so episode two would already be starting practically from scratch and the relationship between Nia and her best friend Misty (Alysha Umphress), especially as they navigate through boarded up areas of Detroit, is a good one to build upon. Take that, and I guess the basic idea of how Nia sometimes visualizes her life in terms of R&B video iconography, and go from there. So maybe it's really less like Insecure and more like Showtime's SMILF, if you think of this pilot as a 27-minute short-film showcase reel that would, in a perfect world, be steered by a strong and nurturing network development team. Does Amazon have that? I haven't the faintest idea, and I don't know if the current group has any incentive to make any of these three pilots work, even at budgets that probably wouldn't cover artificial hobbit toe-hair on Lord of the Rings.
Pilots for 'The Climb,' 'Sea Oak' and 'Love You More' are all available to stream on Amazon.