Amazon’s (roughly) twice-yearly pilot season has only a few days to go, with potential shows’ pilots available to watch online and a survey letting the public vote on which should be picked up.
The Tick, I Love Dick, and (failing to round out the rhyming names) John-Claude Van Johnson are all available free online for the next few days. Amazon will choose whether to make full seasons of each based on reactions, reviews, and survey responses.
So which are worth a look?
Creator Ben Edlund’s third attempt to bring his self-important superhero to the screen might be the most successful. Aside from the pop culture landscape being a lot more primed for superhero satire, this version also marks the deepest dive into some surprisingly rich psychological drama behind the comedy.
As earnestly played by Griffin Newman, the pilot’s introduction to Arthur – a sidekick to the eponymous hero in every previous version – is unexpectedly explicit about layering in themes of mental health problems. In this telling, Arthur was traumatised by a supervillain at a young age, so that as an adult his meeting with The Tick and the inevitable bad guys surrounding him sets off paranoia. Peter Serafinowicz’ take on the Tick himself clashes interestingly with the realism found elsewhere in the pilot.
In half an hour, The Tick sets up rich and entertaining characters, commits to taking them seriously while remaining a playful comedy, and offers up an unsettling picture of what it’s like to be paranoid in a world where there really are evil people in capes after you. In its superhero trappings and willingness to be a melancholy comedy, it might be the most of-the-moment option Amazon serves up this year.
I Love Dick
Writer Chris Kraus gets her runaway feminist hit novel directed by Transparent showrunner Jill Solloway, and the results are as expected. While parts of the premise are slow almost to the point of plodding, it remains playful and well acted, and could meet Transparent’s quality level given time. Its pilot’s real problem is that it struggles for a hook.
The success of the show inevitably turns on the character of Dick, whose slightly bizarre academic-plus charisma captivates the protagonist (a fictionalised Chris Kraus, the perfectly cast Kathryn Hahn) and has to do the same for the audience. Solloway just about pulls it off, with Kevin Bacon exactly the kind of stunt casting the show needs.
As is to be expected, Solloway aims for somewhere in between sympathy of and light revulsion for her characters, while her always playfully aloof direction is familiar from her previous work and suited to the writing. It works, but on its own seems like it misses the spark of Solloway’s Transparent and Six Feet Under work – for now.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson
2008 film JCVD felt right for Van Damme at stage of his career. The films that made him famous will always overshadow anything he does nowadays, so maturing by taking a sideways look at that legacy might be the only sensible option. So this attempt, which leans further towards genre than JCVD ever did, was probably inevitable.
Some reliably depressing scene setting establishes Van Damme’s bored retirement life, but by the halfway mark the show has established itself as an outright comedy where characters earnestly throw out lines like, “He spinning-backheel-kicked his way into my heart.” In the show’s universe it emerges than Van Damme has always been a black ops superspy, appearing in cheap films around the globe as covers for various espionage adventures.
The comedy is fairly mean spirited, so the show is hard to take at face value when it pivots to sad character beats. Some genuinely funny lines hint that ironing out that tonal whiplash might make for an entertainingly weird piece of TV, but based on the pilot this is just as likely to be a one-joke show.
Amazon pilot season ends on Thursday 22nd September.