After Jill Soloway’s Transparent won five Emmy Awards as well as the Golden Globe for Best Comedy Series this past year, the stakes are higher than ever for Amazon’s annual pilot season—now in its third year—in which the company not only produces but also publicly shares a large number of TV pilots for its Prime subscribers to view and rate. Only the ones that rate the highest with Amazon’s users will be picked up for a full series run.
The critical success of a show like Transparent explains why more and more high-profile artists are getting on board with Amazon’s new model. As great as it is to have HBO make your pilot, if the network passes, all that hard work will never see the light of day. Just ask Noah Baumbach about his adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.
This year’s crop of pilots, released online Thursday, include One Mississippi, written by Tig Notaro and Diablo Cody and produced by Louis CK, and Z: The Beginning of Everything, starring Christina Ricci as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s future wife Zelda Sayre.
But the project with the most impressive pedigree and the most intriguing future just might be Highston, an odd half-hour comedy about a 19-year-old boy named Highston Liggetts who spends most of his waking life talking to imaginary friends who just happen to be major celebrities.
Highston emerged from the mind of Nebraska co-writer Bob Nelson, who injects some of that film’s dry irreverence into lines spoken by the title character’s parents, played by comedians Chris Parnell and Mary Lynn Rajskub. The project was executive-produced by Sacha Baron Cohen and the pilot was directed by Little Miss Sunshine’s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
“So your son imagines that celebrities are his friends,” a doctor tells Highston’s parents at the top of the pilot, before suggesting that the teenager could benefit from some time spent in an institution. They explain that their son recently got some good advice from Madonna, but they do not approve of what Daniel Day-Lewis has been telling him.
Asked for his input as to whether Highston should be institutionalized, an uncle (played by the always intriguing character actor Curtis Armstrong) intones, “If Highston belongs in a psychiatric facility, we all belong in a psychiatric facility... So I would have to say yes.”
The name-dropping continues over the course of the opening scene. If someone “nice” like Meryl Streep is talking to Highston today, then his parents think he might be willing to consider the move. But “if it’s an asshole like Donald Trump,” then all bets are off.
Ultimately, the main conceit of the show is revealed when we get our first look at Highston, sitting out in the waiting room next to Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. Later, we see Shaquille O’Neal teaching Highston to dance—and quoting choreographer Martha Graham—as Flea jams on the bass in the teenager’s bedroom.
Whereas shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage gave celebrities a chance to self-parody the way the culture at large sees them, this show simply allows them to portray themselves as they might be imagined through the eyes of a suburban teenager.
The way the show deals with this disconnect between what Highston sees and what the rest of his world is experiencing lives somewhere in the space between FX’s Wilfred and USA’s Mr. Robot. His parents especially seem overly willing to indulge the fantasy.
At one point, Highston’s dad tells him he almost wishes he were gay instead of possibly psychotic. “I was worried when Alex Rodriguez started sleeping over,” he notes. A potential employer at a collection agency is less understanding, watching as our hero struggles to ignore Flea and Shaq’s constant interruptions while on the phone with a man who owes $5,000.
With the prospects of school or a job seemingly off the table, Highston is left with no choice but to enter that psychiatric facility. But at the urging of his celebrity friends, he ends up fleeing the premises, riding piggy-back on Shaq’s enormous shoulders down the halls and out into the world.
“It’s going to be a wonderful journey for you, brother,” Flea tells him as they run away together, teasing the endless possibilities that such a delightfully surreal show could achieve if given the chance.
Among the statements in Amazon’s post-watch survey with which viewers are asked agree or disagree is “This is a unique show, unlike other shows on TV.” Assuming the company puts a high value on that characterization, the prospects for a full season pickup for Highston should be quite strong.