Every year the television networks roll out massive slates of new television shows, and, reliably, there are at least a dozen of them that audiences watch and wonder, “Who let this on air?” Now, the answer will be: you.
We’re waist-deep in the strange new waters of online original programming now, and, as such, Amazon is changing things up with the launch of its first slate of original series. Late last week the Web juggernaut posted all 14 of the the “TV” pilots it ordered and asked the public to view, rate, and review them all. Of the eight comedy and four children’s pilots posted, those with the most views and best viewer feedback will be ordered to a whole series. In other words, only the most popular ones—those you like—will move forward.
While the move seems like a brilliant no-brainer—if audiences get to chose the shows that are produced, then they’ll also, presumably, watch the shows that get produced—there are certain drawbacks. Take a look at the weekly TV ratings, for example. If network executives only produced TV shows that were popular, then the TV lineup would be a steady rotation of Duck Dynasty and NCIS, while culturally important and, you know, good series like 30 Rock, Community, and even Mad Men would never see the light of day.
Nonetheless, I watched the eight comedy pilots—as someone who gets mild epileptic seizures from watching three minutes of Yo Gabba Gabba, I’m in no position to understand, let alone rate, children’s programming—and ranked them in order of which most deserve series orders. You can watch them here. Do you agree?
1. Onion News Empire
About: How far broadcast journalists will go to keep ratings big.
Is it any good? In the world of Onion News Empire, The Onion is “one of the world’s most powerful media, lumber, computer, and fake-Christmas-tree-manufacturing conglomerates,” and its journalists—played by a comedy dream team including Chris Masterson, Jeffrey Tambor, William Sadler, and a studly Cheyenne Jackson—superficially ruthless in pursuit of ratings. The tight script is packed with 30 Rock–caliber jokes—in one fake news item, sleeper-cell terrorists, in their effort to pose as ordinary Americans, became too fat to fit into their suicide vests. One producer is pursuing a story on the most shocking shark shootings. Another wants to make sure the camera shot is tight on the handsome reporter’s bulge. “Can you walk and talk at the same time?” one character asks. “Yes, I took a class.” Early on, a reporter is praised for landing the “cable-news trifecta”—violence, sex, and animals. The story: a bear mauling at a porn-star charity car wash. Like it sounds, the series is essentially a joke-packed Onion story spoofing ratings-obsessed news networks. And, like it sounds, that’s a great thing.
The sassy supernatural experts are drawn a bit too broadly, but it’s hard to not chuckle as they bicker about Instagramming selfies while trying to coax spirits out of a haunted house.
2. Dark Minions
About: A stop-motion animated comedy about two slackers who begrudgingly take low-level jobs on an intergalactic warship.
Is at any good? The pilot opens with a crudely drawn, barely animated address to the audience that only half the episode will be fully animated in stop-motion—but reassures that if the show is picked up to series, everything will be properly animated. The warning sets the tone for the ensuing Adult Swim and Archer-like humor that will be highly appealing to people who think a buddy comedy about two guys who swear and get high a lot is hilarious. It’s silly, fun, and smartly written, and the audience for it definitely exists. Dark Minions isn’t as strong as Onion News Empire, but it may be Amazon’s best shot at a successful series.
About: Four survivors fight off the zombie apocalypse while searching for a place to call home.
Is it any good? Easily the most high profile of Amazon’s pilots, Zombieland is the series version of the hit 2009 comedy starring Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, and Emma Stone. The film’s writers are back, and the setup in the pilot is almost exactly the same as the film. The dialogue is sharp, and the production value is solid—the opening zombie-attack segment is as awesomely bloody as it is hilarious. The biggest drawback is something the show really can’t do anything about: franchise attachment. The pilot sorely misses the film’s original cast, especially as the script hews so closely to the movie’s screenplay. Still, the concept remains as unique as it was in 2009. Without Harrelson and company, the series may seem a bit like a cheap knockoff, but it’s a knockoff of something stellar that’s still pretty good.
About: Four friends trying to launch the next big social network.
Is it any good? Betas gets lots of mileage out of Silicon Valley cliches. Developers play ping-pong and have Nerf wars in Cheeto-littered office spaces. The socially awkward algorithm genius proudly states, “I don’t own pants.” Hoodie-wearing 20-something startup CEOs celebrate seed-money investments with rounds of Jäger bombs. But far more interesting than the workplace comedy is the Scrubs-like heart given to the friendship dynamics of the four buddies struggling to make their new app—symbolically, a social network that helps you meet people you’d want to socialize with sans screen—succeed.
About: An animated comedy about how two divas fight the supernatural when they’re off from their shifts at the mall.
Is it any good? The series couldn’t be more high concept, and it’s worrisome whether a conceit like this has legs or if the joke—two sassy divas bantering matter-of-factly while on absurd ghost-hunting missions—will be repetitive past one or two episodes. But as a pilot, Supanatural is strong. The sassy supernatural experts are drawn a bit too broadly, but it’s hard to not chuckle as they bicker about Instagramming selfies while trying to coax spirits out of a haunted house.
6. Alpha House
About: A group of four GOP senators are roommates who bond over doing the bare minimum to stay in office. John Goodman and Mark Consuelos star.
Is it any good? The conceit—Friends meets Washington politicians—is a clever one, and no one does beleaguered and put upon like John Goodman, who is the pilot’s standout. The problem, though, is that the throwaway jokes work better than the obvious punchlines. A quick sight gag—the roommates all grab flag pins from the house’s candy dish on the way to the Capitol—is far funnier than the been-there jokes about the Republican Party (one character receives the Say No to Sodomy Award by the Council for Normal Marriage) and lazy politicians (Goodman launching into a litany of swears after learning he has to do real work gets old after the fourth time).
7. Those Who Can’t
About: Three foul-mouthed teachers act more juvenile than the high-school students they teach.
Is it any good? The show’s clearly aiming for a Workaholics-set-at-a-high-school vibe, but the fratty humor here isn’t as smart. As a result, the grown-men-act-immature-and-it’s-adorable antics come off as obnoxious and unappealing. The humor isn’t raunchy or bawdy enough to attain any shock value, like in Bad Teacher, and the dialogue isn’t clever enough to excuse the men-behaving-badly behavior, in the way that The League and Workaholics work.
About: Broke interns toiling in New York City. Also, it’s a musical. With original songs.
Is it any good? The opening song includes the lyric, “I’m 22 and I live in Queens/I don’t eat nothing but rice and beans.” One character belts a key change on the word “doughnut.” No, it’s not any good. In fact, it’s pretty embarrassing.