The Man In The High Castle

Somewhat overshadowed in the announcement of Amazon Studios’ upcoming series from Woody Allen: This week marks the start of Amazon’s first pilot season in 2015, in which Amazon users can choose the shows that will join Allen’s series, Transparent, Mozart In The Jungle, Red Oaks, and Bosch on Prime Instant Video. Below, The A.V. Club offers its thoughts on Amazon’s seven new drama and comedy pilots, along with a review of one of the studio’s new children’s offerings.

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The Man In The High Castle

Philip K. Dick’s alternate-history novel The Man In The High Castle has one hell of a premise: What if the Allies lost the Second World War? One of the first great pleasures of the pilot episode of this adaptation is how cleverly it introduces that premise without ever stooping to expository narration or introductory text. Instead, the world of an America divided in two (one part controlled by Germany, the other by Japan) is presented as simple fact, with background information filtering in through the context of character and plot. The pilot pulls back some on the mysticism of Dick’s work, but still finds time to mention the I Ching and offer hints that the novel’s metaphysical plotline is still basically intact. Whether or not that plotline can support an ongoing series remains to be seen, but this first episode is as strong start, deftly introducing a small group of leading characters, building the world around them, and then, in the final moments, brutally twisting the screws. If the pilot has a flaw, it’s a lack of humor; while the mournful tone is understandable, given the subject matter, the grimness could become tedious if it remains unrelieved. But that’s a minor concern. Dick’s work is often mangled on its way to the screen, but so far, this version is both faithful and canny in its changes, providing more than enough reason to keep watching. [Zack Handlen]

Executive producers: David Semel, Frank Spotnitz, Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker, Stewart Mackinnon, Christian Baute, Isa Dick Hackett, Christopher Tricarico (based on the novel by Philip K. Dick)
Starring: Alexa Davalos, Luke Kleintank, Rupert Evans, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Joel De La Fuente
Format: One-hour alternate-history drama

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Mad Dogs

Mad Dogs’ big selling point is that it was executive-produced by The Shield/Terriers boss Shawn Ryan, who developed the project for FX before moving the pilot to Amazon. But Mad Dogs isn’t really “a Shawn Ryan show,” because it’s based on a British series, created by Cris Cole, who worked closely with Ryan on the new version. Like Sky1’s Mad Dogs, Amazon’s is about four middle-aged friends who visit a wildly successful pal at his luxurious island estate, then learn that their host’s criminal ties will drastically change their vacation plans. The remake is set in Belize instead of Majorca, and Billy Zane plays the part of the rich buddy that Ben Chaplin played in the original; Chaplin’s back on board as one of the guests, alongside Steve Zahn, Michael Imperioli, and Romany Malco.

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Amazon’s Mad Dogs pilot has a slow-boil quality that’s ill suited to a “vote to see more episodes” competition. This is very much a long-form story, with twists that come late (both in this episode and the original series). The performances are strong and the scenery’s gorgeous, but the first episode spends so much time establishing how miserable the characters are in their everyday lives—trapped in jobs, marriages, and aging bodies that are all failing them in various ways—that it undercuts the thrills of watching desperate schlubs play cat-and-mouse games at an exotic resort. Not until the last 10 minutes does Mad Dogs develop into the kind of white-knuckle action-adventure that Ryan has handled so well in the past, in which every minor decision becomes a potential trap. The pilot sets up a potentially exciting second episode, and that next chapter should maybe have been where Ryan and Cole started. [Noel Murray]

Created by: Cris Cole and Shawn Ryan
Starring: Ben Chaplin, Michael Imperioli, Romany Malco, Steve Zahn, Billy Zane
Format: Hour-long thriller


Salem Rogers

Leslie Bibb has been playing the stuck-up bitch for years, without getting to have any fun with it. In Salem Rogers, she plays the hot-mess bitch and she gets to have a ball. Directed by Mark Waters (Mean Girls), who is certainly familiar with the territory of navigating tricky female social hierarchies, Bibb plays a Kate Moss-style former superstar—named model of the year in 1998, engaged to Jason Priestley at the height of his powers—who is forced out of rehab after a 10-year stay. She enlists the help of her former assistant—Agatha (Rachel Dratch), not-so-lovingly referred to as Rags—who has spent the last decade becoming a self-help author for tweens. Rags counsels inner beauty, but it’s the mean hot chick who wins out in the end. Bibb plays Salem big and broad, which often lands, but she’s made even bigger and broader by Dratch’s comedic subtlety, which doesn’t always work in the star’s favor. (The same could be said for the writing, with tartness and irreverence that fits Bibb well.) But it’s Bibb and Dratch working together that gives the show its pulse: “Shouldn’t you call your sponsor?” Rags asks Salem after she orders a drink at a club. “No, she wouldn’t like this place,” Salem responds. [Molly Eichel]

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Created by: Lindsey Stoddart
Starring: Leslie Bibb, Rachel Dratch, Jane Kaczmarek, Harry Hamlin
Format: Half-hour single-camera sitcom


Point Of Honor

From Randall Wallace, the writer of Braveheart and Pearl Harbor, comes Point Of Honor, the story of a noble Virginia family that frees its slaves but fights for the South when the War Of Northern Aggression flares up. The title is the name of their plantation, like The Big Valley, but that’s the point of honor: Eldest son John Rhodes (Nathan Parsons) defends the South even while agreeing with the North. With the business of slavery waved away, the Rhodeses distill the Civil War into a question of states’ rights. How convenient.

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From the war reenactments on location in Virginia to the tortured Australian Southern accents, Point Of Honor feels like dress-up. In fact, the shoulder-less ball gowns and modern attitudes place it closer to Reign than Turn, and it plays better (if still not very good) as a period teen-and-twentysomething melodrama than a Civil War show. One of the Rhodes sisters is engaged to John’s best friend from West Point, who’s fighting for the Union, but those two have nothing on the accidental sparks between John and his eldest sister.

It’s on the macro level that Point Of Honor really fails. It’s clever enough to give the ex-slaves some attention, but its understanding of slavery is as shallow as the rest. When the good masters emancipate everyone, an old ex-slave asks in disbelief, “Free to do what?” A black girl just smiles, hugs him, and says, “Free,” as the soundtrack gives way to “Amazing Grace.” [Brandon Nowalk]

Executive producers: Randall Wallace, Carlton Cuse, Barry Jossen
Starring: Nathan Parsons, Christopher O’Shea, Annabelle Stephenson, Riley Voelkel, Hanna Mangan Lawrence
Format: Hour-long historical drama

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The New Yorker Presents

The New Yorker Presents touts itself as a TV version of the popular print magazine, a pitch that initially seems a bit confusing, but the pilot turns out to be exactly that: The pages of The New Yorker presented in the medium of television. The first shot serves as a table of contents, laying out what’s to come: a short film starring Alan Cumming and Brett Gelman, a conversation between performance artist Marina Abramović and New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy, a documentary by Jonathan Demme about the biologist and professor Tyrone Hayes, and a poem performed by Andrew Garfield. Time-lapsed footage of Emily Flake drawing cartoons plays as interstitials between each segment.

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For the most part, all of these pieces are strong: The cartoons and short film are funny, the conversation with Abramović breathes with a casual vibe, and the documentary is impressively layered despite its short run-time. Only the poem falls short, likely due to the odd casting choice of Garfield, who just doesn’t bring much of anything to his reading of the poem by Matthew Dickman.

Despite all the rich content, it’s unclear exactly who the intended audience is here. Regular New Yorker readers? Or is it trying to pull in non-subscribers? If it’s the latter, the series doesn’t seem quite innovative enough to attract a newer, potentially younger audience. The fact that the short film is referred to as such—and not as a sketch—gets at the sort of lofty disconnect The New Yorker sometimes has. [Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya]

Executive producers: Alex Gibney, Dave Snyder, and Dawn Ostroff
Starring: Alan Cumming, Brett Gelman, Emily Flake, Marina Abramović, Tyrone Hayes, Andrew Garfield
Format: Half-hour variety show

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Niko And The Sword Of Light

Niko And The Sword Of Light’s premise is about as basic as these things come: Niko (Felix Avitia) has a glowing sword and a mysterious past and has to use both to defeat some great “darkness” at the top of a Cursed Volcano. He has a magical friend voiced by Tom Kenny, and fights monsters in a big, bad swamp. The pilot hits all the expected beats, right down to the introduction of a shadowy assassin-like antagonist at the end of the episode. Big, epic kids’ shows often start slow, so it’s worth giving Niko And The Sword Of Light the benefit of the doubt in this respect, but even the slight touches of Shrek-like adult humor (a faceless monster asks Niko if he’s seen his keys) seem perfunctory and tacked-on. To be fair, Niko’s fear and seeming incompetence might add a refreshing lightness to the series if he winds up bumbling his way through the storybook world. And at the very least, the color-by-numbers nature of the plot will make it easier for younger children to follow along. But the animation is the real selling point here. Based on the motion comic from Imaginism Studios (which worked on character designs for Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland) and Studio NX and animated by Titmouse (the studio behind Metalocalypse, The Venture Bros., and Netflix’s Turbo Fast), Niko And The Sword Of Light looks great. Even where the designs seem slightly derivative (Niko resembles Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Aang just a bit much), they’re rich and well shaded in a way that, unsurprisingly, strongly suggests a comic leaping from the page. For the visuals alone, animation aficionados may want to check out the show. [Eric Thurm]

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Created by: Rob Hoegee
Starring: Tom Kenny and Jim Cummings
Format: Half-hour action cartoon


Cocked

Right from the outset, Cocked is a hard sell. In a time when police shootings of unarmed victims and other examples of gun violence dominate media coverage, a drama about the fortunes of a family-owned gun manufacturer feels like the last thing anyone wants to watch. Cocked avoids propagandizing for either side of the firearm-control debate, but it also fails to justify its existence in the face of that unclear ideology.

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That’s not for lack of trying, as creators Samuel Baum (Lie To Me) and Sam Shaw (Manhattan) attempt to invest the Paxson family with Ewing-level complexity. Cocked is packed with clashing personalities: milquetoast marketing executive Richard (Sam Trammell), chaotic brother Grady (Jason Lee), cunning half-sister Tabby (Dreama Walker), and gruff patriarch Wade (Brian Dennehy). Most of their dynamics are explained via exposition; a late exchange between Richard and Grady illuminating why the former left home is particularly stiff. And while the cast is solid, the performances they’re giving are stock—Lee in particular goes so broad there’s little room to humanize Grady going forward.

Going forward is the concern, as this pilot sets a weak course for future episodes. With a central conflict centered around avoiding mergers and rebranding the company, it feels the need to introduce a whole murder threat subplot to push the action forward, and its twist ending invalidates any sense of future danger. The direction by Jordan Vogt-Roberts is unremarkable—save for an inexplicable room-spanning shot of Grady’s bender—and despite taking place in the Colorado frontier, the action feels confined to a few different rooms. Cocked clearly aspires to be in the same wheelhouse as Justified or Sons Of Anarchy, but compared to how those shows started in terms of family drama, world-building, and action scenes, it’s not even close to the same caliber. [Les Chappell]

Created by: Samuel Baum and Sam Shaw
Starring: Sam Trammell, Jason Lee, Brian Dennehy, Laura Fraser, Dreama Walker
Format: Hour-long drama

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Down Dog

Like its free-spirited protagonist (Josh Casaubon), Down Dog has some decisions to make: Is it a workplace comedy, telling the stories of the surrogate family that forms around a Los Angeles yoga studio? Is it a tale of arrested development centering on Casaubon’s Logan, a handsome smoothie who’s suddenly saddled with authority and responsibility after breezing his way into his late 30s? Or is it a show that’s all about starting over, one where Logan gets dumped by business-savvy Amanda (Paget Brewster), moves back to his parents’ weed farm in the Topanga Canyon, and adopts a dog? Fortunately for Down Dog, the show is still at the pilot stage, so it can be all of those things and more. Unfortunately, what’s presented in the first half-hour of the show doesn’t present a compelling reason to follow any of those threads.

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The pilot, scripted by Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion writer Robin Schiff, is a quandary of topic and tone. As Logan, Casaubon affects the even-keeled attitude of a yoga instructor, not particularly likable but not particularly despicable, either. As such, his change of fortune inspires neither sympathy or schadenfreude. Beyond the typical single-camera pilot problems, like being light on real laughs, Down Dog might have just chosen the wrong line of work for a TV comedy: The material about the yoga studio and the characters that work there are all together too Zen, and the episode suffers from a general lack of energy. Word to the wise: The word “savasana” belongs nowhere near a sitcom script. [Erik Adams]

Created by: Robin Schiff
Starring: Josh Casaubon, Paget Brewster, Lyndsy Fonseca, Amir Talai, Will Greenberg
Format: Half-hour single-camera sitcom