by David Mendez
Last week, Amazon released pilots for the new, original sitcoms that they're testing for their streaming video service, Amazon Instant Video, hoping to draw customers away from Netflix's booming streaming video service and into the warm embrace of Amazon Prime subscriptions.
I was able to catch four of the eight comedies that they've released for viewer consumption during one particularly sleepless night over the weekend — and I'm glad to say that only ONE of them was mostly terrible!
So let's do our best to compress those four pilots into encapsulated reviews. First off...
This show, based around the idea of four Senators sharing a house in Washington D.C. has a few big names attached to it: notably, John Goodman is the biggest name in the ensemble. Unfortunately, it has the misfortune of coming into existence fairly near the launch of Netflix's highly-touted political drama House of Cards (which was a bit of a mess in its own right).
Alpha House is...disjointed, playing off of tired stereotypes: the young-and-oversexed politician; the struggling-to-remain-closeted gay Conservative; the long-time congressman who can't be bothered to give a shit anymore; and the competent black guy in a room full of dumb white folk...and that's just the main cast.
Honestly, the show is fine—but that's all it is. It's a single-camera, half-hour bowl of comedic oatmeal that isn't sure if it wants to be political satire or a wacky ensemble comedy that has two things going for it: the leads turn in strong performances that make me interested in seeing them work together over a longer period; and it features a cameo by Bill Murray, which is a terrific segue into...
As far as I'm concerned, Zombieland is absolutely the most notable of the Amazon Original Series, both in terms of name-value and in quality.
Be warned — none of the leads from the original film are present in this (presumably, Jesse Eisenberg is still trying to make us forget that he isn't actually Mark Zuckerberg; Woody Harrelson is trying to live down his latest movie failures; Abagail Breslin is fending off creepy people waiting for her to turn 18; and Emma Stone is off being critically celebrated), leaving us to make due with nigh-facsimiles of the leads...at least, except in the case of the "Tallahassee" character, which trades the sinewy, goofy-hardass of Harrelson for a beefier comedian and character actor in Kirk Ward.
Zombieland makes good with the dark, detached post-apocalyptic humor that one might expect from characters who go by the names of their hometowns so as to not become attached to each other—the main characters hardly bat an eyelash when potential new recruits die horribly just as soon as they're introduced—while also holding firm to popular elements of the film, such as the "Zombie Kill of the Week" and the "Rules to Survive Zombieland."
Honestly, I'd be shocked if this show doesn't get picked up — it deserves it.
Less deserving, however, is the latest attempt at sending up a show or genre from The Onion, the satirical newspaper of choice around here (at least, until the local daily drops the charade of local relevance and becomes USA Today with a spotlight on University of Arizona sports).
Onion News Empire is what would pop out if HBO's The Newsroom had a weird three-way with The Whitest Kids U Know and Airplane! (and ignored everything we know about reproductive science), only without clever dialogue or, uh, humor.
It's a show that tries to carry an air of Aaron Sorkin's self-important bitch-fest about the state of contemporary media while attempting to maintain the brutal satire that The Onion is noted for, and it fails. Miserably.
Well, that's unfair. The quick-hitting, absurd, out-of-context jokes are fine. They're often shocking enough to be funny, and clever enough to be laughed at a second or third time.
The problem lies in that the show attempts to carry an ensemble, rather than dropping a sole protagonist into the absurdity of an Onion News Network newsroom: it's strongest when the narrative focuses on the new hire, played by Malcolm in the Middle actor (and Neil Patrick Harris look-alike) Christopher Masterson as he interacts with the psychos around him. When it branches out into tertiary stereotypes such as the aging, self-important anchor (Jeffery Tambor) or the ice-queen network head (Laila Robins), the show drags, assailing both one's intelligence and attention span.
The Onion is capable of doing great live-action media satire (the "Today Now!" clips are spectacular, for one), but this is just disappointing. Plus, the fact that it's sending up The Newsroom, a show that's already outlived its cultural relevance, makes it seem dated—something that The Onion can rarely be accused of otherwise.
See, the title is clever because the characters are dealing with software that isn't ready for release AND because none of them are stereotypical alpha males (see Alpha House, above)! It works on multiple levels! Kinda!
Betas is a look into the Silicon Valley idea to turn an idea into an app, and an app into a lot of money.
Interestingly, the fact that Betas features a number of actors who are familiar mostly as having small roles on Adult Swim comedies and slightly-bigger-than-extra parts in feature flicks plays into the show's overall feel well: you want to root for these guys because you have no idea who they are. They're somewhat stereotypically flawed, but it makes sense due to the pressures the characters heap on themselves — perfectionism, hunger for success, unrequited love — propped against the vaguely sociopathic, slightly-unhinged comic relief.
What's selling me on this show, other than the desire to see underdogs overcome the various obstacles in their paths to success, is the idea of watching the core four characters interact. Much like Arrested Development had a tendency to fling a few characters together in an episode and watch hilarity ensue, I'm looking forward to watching the tightly-wound perfectionist spend an episode with the group's foul lout. Hopefully, I'm not alone in that regard.
Look for a review of Amazon's four other original comedy pilots within the week.