A Closer Look at Amazon’s New Comedy Pilots
It’s that time of year again: Amazon pilot season. The streaming service is once again letting you play Network Executive and decide which of their new pilots become series. You watch the pilots, then take a brief survey. Using this data, Amazon will decide which of their new shows get orders for more episodes. This year we have five new shows to judge, four of which could charitably be considered comedies. (Or at least comedy adjacent. More on that later.)
The shows vary greatly in tone (from scatalogical joke machine The New V.I.P.’s to understated haiku The Legend of Master Legend), setting (two period pieces, one animated version of New York, and one contemporary take on Las Vegas), and even length (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is an hourlong dramedy, though there are more jokes in it than the half-hour Legend of Master Legend). What they all have in common is a certain cerebral standoffishness that feels very on-brand for an Amazon series. Every almost-network has its own flavor. HBO is Boobs ‘n’ Blood; Netflix is almost going for mass appeal, with all the food docs and Fuller House. Amazon is the girl sketching people in a corner at a party. No doubt viewer/survey-takers’ opinions will factor into which pilots get picked up, but so will how these shows fit into the Amazon ethos.
Man, I thought I was going to hate this show. I started this show knowing nothing about it other than it was created by wife-husband team/Gilmore Girls and Bunheads auteurs Amy Sherman Palladino and Daniel Palladino, and set in Mad Men-times. It opens with Mrs. Maisel on her wedding day, giving a toast. “Who gives a toast at her own wedding?” she asks. “I do,” she answers to uproarious applause. It struck me as the most Amy Sherman Palladino thing to ever happen. But Mrs. Maisel won me over.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a dramedy about a woman trying to break into the standup comedy scene of the Greenwich Village in the mid-’50s, but really it’s a tragedy about being married to a hack. Miriam Maisel’s husband leaves her after he bombs once at an open mic and she discovers he stole his material from Bob Newhart. I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH THAT THIS IS A REAL PLOT POINT. A man does poorly at one open mic, and leaves his wife.
I have watched this pilot three times.
What works so well about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a perfect representation of what it feels like to realize that you’re funny, and that it can save you in a way. By the middle of the pilot, Miriam Maisel is completely alone. Her husband has left her, her parents blame her for him leaving, her children don’t seem to realize she exists. But she goes on stage and she connects with people. They help her see her worth. It’s magical figuring out that you have a voice, and I desperately want to hear more of hers.
This was the most comedic of the comedies on offer this pilot season. Created by The Life and Times of Tim’s Steve Dildarian and featuring the voice talents of Matt Braunger, Ben Schwartz, and Missi Pyle, The New V.I.P.’s takes the Weekend and Bernie’s plot one step further. Or combines it with 9 to 5. After their boss dies unexpectedly, three low-level employees at a generically terrible corporation conspire to place a security guard in the role of the recently deceased CEO. But to focus on the plot does a disservice to the true intent of the show: dick jokes. Relentless, glorious, obnoxious dick jokes. Too often comedy writers lament that their time is perhaps misspent writing dick jokes, when the stuff being written isn’t even that dick-heavy. Not so with The New V.I.P.’s. Be they real or drawn, large or 10% smaller after a penis reduction surgery, dicks hang ominously over every scene. Also poop and pee. If you can’t get on board with that, then you aren’t going to like the show.
If you can get on board, the show has plenty of jokes and funny people to tell them. Kerri Kenney Silver plays an annoying middle manager. The Office’s Creed Bratton is a vengeful coworker named Comb Over Charlie, who’s vengeful because someone gave him the nickname Comb Over Charlie. And Jason Mantzoukas kind of steals the pilot as a douchey plastic surgeon.
I’m honestly not sure whether or not to include this show as a comedy. The description on Amazon called it a “dark comedy,” and it’s a half-hour which is how the Emmys decide what is or is not a comedy. But there are no jokes in The Legend of Master Legend. I don’t mean that there were jokes that didn’t hit, I mean no jokes were attempted. There’s an absurd premise, but The Passion of Joan of Arc has an absurd premise too.
The Legend of Master Legend stars John Hawks as Master Legend, a masked vigilante who dresses up in a costume and patrols the streets of downtown Las Vegas. He lives in a storage locker, is estranged from his wife but not from their daughter, and calls all drug addicts and miscreants crackheads. I think we’re supposed to laugh at him. Mainly I just worried about his daughter.
The Legend of Master Legend is well shot, with Las Vegas’ neon glitz and stark desert highlighted in equal measure. Hawks lends gravitas to the ridiculous speeches he delivers about the nature of Good and Evil. And his daughter’s nascent queerness was heartbreaking and honest. But this show isn’t a comedy. It’s a short drama.
Based on the novel by T.C. Boyle and helmed by Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff, Budding Prospects is about three friends who leave the Mission District to run a pot farm. The pilot ends before the hapless boys make it to farm, but presumably the show will be about the farm and the setbacks these dudes encounter on said farm. The three manchildren who will run this farm are standard-issue slacker comedy archetypes: the nebbish (Felix), the wisecracker (Phil), and the hothead (Gesh, played by Will Sasso).
Budding Prospects is aggressively set in the ’80s, with references to Reaganomics and the nascent computer industry. At one point Felix laments that everyone is hanging out in cafes with their absurdly high-priced $2 cups of coffee. “Pretty soon the coffeeshops will outnumber the taquerias,” he says. Phil says that will never happen, not in the Mission, and we all get the joke.
Heavy-handed period piece trappings aside, Budding Prospects is a pleasant but predictable half hour of TV. The show isn’t reinventing the wheel; we’ve seen slackers try their hands at the pot biz before. But the little Zwigoff touches give the show color. There’s even a Ghost World in-joke. Felix falls for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (improbably named Aorta and played by Natalie Morales) when she shows him a child’s skull with baby teeth still intact. “You never think about all those mature teeth lurking under a kids face,” she says, “but there they are. I guess we’re all just freaks when you scratch the surface.” For comedy nerds, the show is also a cameofest. Besides Morales and Sasso, Brett Gelman plays the smarmy entrepreneur running the pot farm and Clare O’Kane makes an indelible impression as Gesh’s girlfriend who’s averse to wearing pants.
I’d be curious to see what the show would be like away from the pilot’s city setting. San Francisco in the ‘80s presents Zwigoff with lots of kooky characters for our heroes to react to. I’m worried a bunch of redwoods won’t bring the energy needed to keep a comedy of errors going.
You can watch all four pilots and weigh in on them on Amazon’s website and streaming platforms.