Pilot Season is Amazon Prime’s guiding light as the video-streaming service tries to escape the shadow cast by Netflix’s impressive line of original programming. It’s an interesting approach, using the entire internet as a focus group, and it seems to be working. Their list of greenlit projects boasts hits such as Alpha House, Transparent, Hand of God, The Man in the High Castle, and many other enjoyable series that held up against the scrutiny of Pilot Season’s crowd-sourced feedback system.
Another round of pilots debuted on August 19th — three comedies this time — Jean-Claude Van Johnson, I Love Dick, and The Tick. Each presents a distinct flavor of humor, which potentially runs the risk of backfiring as Amazon assesses whether or not each has any staying power. The best part about Pilot Season is its democratic tendencies. Hell, you can “thumbs up” all three if you think they should belong to Amazon’s lineup. In the end, each pilot is judged on its own ability to tread water, independent of what’s sinking or swimming beside it.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson
Jean-Claude Van Damme goes full circle to embrace his inner Johnny Cage as the star of this metafictional super-spy parody. He portrays the “real” version of himself, a retired secret agent whose career as an action star was merely a cover for his actual work as an elite operative. The aging split-master decides to jump back into action, both covertly and cinematically, in an attempt to rekindle an old flame. Self-aware absurdity ensues, including Van Damme… rather, Van Johnson starring in a martial-arts adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
There’s room for JCVJ to reinvent JCVD as a self-reflexive caricature, but it best tread carefully. The first episode showed warning signs of being a one-trick pony that too readily calls back to the source material it means to spoof. If we are going to be fed a steady diet of low-hanging fruit, it better be prepared tastefully. Yes, embracing excessive fight sequences, melodramatic characterization, and overblown plot points all perpetuate the gag of a premise, yet these alone cannot sustain an entire season of episodes.
It will be no easy task to steer Jean-Claude Van Johnson away from the pitfalls that ensnare many a spoof. Fortunately for Mr. Muscles from Brussels, Scott Free Productions produced his pilot. Ridley Scott himself joins Van Damme as an executive producer alongside David W. Zucker (producer, The Man in the High Castle), Peter Atencio (director, Keanu and the Key and Peele TV series), and Dave Callaham (writer, The Expendables franchise). With Atencio directing and Callaham scriptwriting, JCVJ is guided by hands familiar with action comedies.
At a glance: It is hard to tell if JCVJ has enough gas in the tank, though its Scottly pedigree should bolster chances of success.
I Love Dick
Amazon struck gold in their second Pilot Season. While many enjoyed the adaptations of Michael Connelly’s Bosch book series as well as Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the Jungle, myself included, particularly regarding the latter, Transparent really legitimized that Amazon Studios was onto something with their crowd-sourcing experiment. I Love Dick appears to be aiming for the best of both worlds in that it is an adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel, written by Chris Kraus, and in that it is helmed by Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent.
This pilot plays out the same as many other romantic dramedies. We are introduced to a couple; he is dedicated to his craft, having been invited to a prestigious fellowship; she is equally crafty, although her career is on a bumpier path at the moment. The “he’s” and “she’s” are certainly swappable in such fiction though their turmoil is inevitable, as is the completion of the narrative’s love triangle. With Dick, the homewrecker apparent is none other than Kevin Bacon, who plays the frustratingly charming, titular Richard.
Here we have a “dark” comedy waiving its black flag back and forth for the sake of attempted quirkiness. The audience is supposed to sympathize with the cast of deplorable personalities because of how unsympathetic they are portrayed to be, an inversion of the “love-to-hate” paradigm, bringing us to hate that we love them – or at the very least to cause us to question exactly where (how?) we find room to relate. Despite this, my reasons for concern likely won’t detract from I Love Dick’s favorability as the pilot faces trial by survey. I am sure that I’m not a member of the demographic Soloway and company have targeted.
At a glance: If the awkwardness of deteriorating relationships and impulsive infatuations happens to be your cup of tea, look no further.
Despite his nigh-invulnerability, I’m nervous to think that The Tick might survive Amazon’s chopping block. Not because of any fatal flaws in the pilot itself, no, rather I’m not sure the series will sit well with the uninitiated. And though my only prior exposure to the character comes from Saturday mornings on Fox, he was always a favorite right alongside Earthworm Jim. (I am going to have to double back to the live-action series starring Warburton – I’ve heard nothing but terrific things.) It was super-powered absurdity at its finest. It was also before the dawn of superhero cinema, the arrival of which is both a blessing and a burden.
On one hand, audiences should know by now that heroes come in all shapes and flavors. Comedic undertones have bolstered many silver-screen depictions of capes and spandex, films like Ant Man, Deadpool, or the cheeky charm of Iron Man all rely upon laughter as punctuation to break up moments of tension. But what about having flashes of seriousness to break up a predominantly ridiculous hero in an equally ridiculous universe? I remain cautiously optimistic. At the very least, viewers should feel comfortable enough to accept the premise of there being an indestructible, blue juggernaut without getting too distracted by his lack of origin story. The never-ending supply of Marvel movies has done wonders for our collective suspension of disbelief.
The risk is that there’s too much nonsense for the pilot to gain traction. Focusing on Arthur’s psychological trauma is a great means of establishing what’s at stake although, even with allusions to the Tyler-Durden dilemma, The Tick is supposed to leave a stupid taste in your mouth. It worked for Mystery Men, and resurfaced palatably with James Gunn’s Super, so maybe now is the time for some Big Blue absurdity. Maybe. If my hesitation with Dick comes from not being part of its intended audience, The Tick has the opposite issue – I am too close to its demographic to believe that my positive opinion isn’t swayed by familiarity and nostalgia. I want this show to do well, but I’m not convinced that my thinking it will is a true barometer of its potential to do so.
At a glance: Spoooooon!