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Amazon TV pilots take flight

August 24, 2016
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Amazon Video offers up three offbeat series

The explosion of broadcast alternatives with regards to television has been something to see in the past few years. No longer is original programming beholden to the big networks or even cable outfits. Streaming services have thrown their respective hats into the ring to significant success.

However, no one does it quite like Amazon does.

After a rather slow beginning, Amazon Video's Pilot Season a time in which the service offers up pilot episodes of various series and offers the public a chance to chime in with what they think has really started to become an event. That's not least because of the success they've seen with shows like 'Transparent,' whose inaugural episode was part of 2014's Pilot Season alongside fellow critical favorite 'Mozart in the Jungle.'

But they might have made the leap with their latest slate.

Starting on Aug. 19, Amazon Prime viewers were able to enjoy the pilot episodes of three half-hour comedies, a trio of programs that feature incredible talent and weirdo sensibilities. Here's a brief rundown of those three, in the order in which I watched them:

I Love Dick

We'll start with the one that I had the least familiarity with. This show, based on Chris Kraus's 1997 novel of the same name, features Kathryn Hahn as Chris, a displaced New York filmmaker who winds up in the Texas town of Marfa with her husband Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), a writer who has been selected as a fellow at an artistic institute run by Dick (a delightful Kevin Bacon), who is the sort of rough-edged intellectual who rides a horse to the store, rolls his own smokes and exudes a combination of confrontation and dismissiveness toward, welljust about everyone. Chris and Sylvere are both drawn to Dick, quickly and completely.

'I Love Dick' has the advantage of Jill Solloway she of the aforementioned 'Transparent' working behind the camera. She directs the pilot and displays the same sort of even-handed combination of intimacy and remove that makes her first show so effective. The juxtaposition of the insular worlds of art and academia against the vast expanse of Texas also contributes to Solloway's signature sense of distance.

Hahn is one of those consistent performers who's always good; it's no different here. She's phenomenal to watch. Meanwhile, Bacon is perfectly cast as the cowboy academic who may or may not be full of horsest. Every character has a skewed quality; granted, some are more overtly skewed than others, but they all have their quirks.

There's a lot to like here, with quality talent involved across the board. But as you'll see, it certainly doesn't measure up in terms of weirdness quotient.

The Tick

Full disclosure: I have loved every iteration of 'The Tick.' I loved Ben Edlund's original comic books. I loved both Fox's animated series from the mid-1990s and the Patrick Warburton-starring live-action offering from the early aughts. I am a fan.

So I was delighted to hear that the character would once again have a chance to return to the airwaves; I was doubly delighted to see that creator Ben Edlund was still very much involved in the process.

'The Tick' starts from a bit of a different place than previous offerings. Arthur (Griffin Newman) is a twitchy young man obsessed with tracking down The Terror (Jackie Earle Haley), the supervillain responsible for killing Arthur's father in front of him. The problem is that the villain is dead killed by the hero Superian. Or is he?

Arthur's obsession leads him to a shadowy henchman-infested warehouse, which is where he encounters the bright-blue lunatic that is The Tick (Peter Serafinowicz), who immediately and irrationally decides that Arthur will be his superheroic sidekick.

The pilot penned by Edlund and directed by Wally Pfister struggles at times to marry the bright madness of the Tick with an altogether grittier world, but hits more often than it misses. If the two can find a way to co-exist a little more effectively, this show is going to shine, though the consistently inconsistent tone might actually work in the show's favor in a landscape dotted with spandex-clad super-types.

Serafinowicz is an oddly inspired choice, with an air of glittering insanity about him. Newman shows a lot of potential; he and Serafinowicz already have an ease that will elevate the banter that ever-so-slightly lags in this first episode. Also, I'm betting Haley absolutely crushes.

Of course, I'm utterly biased because I want so very badly to see this character back on television.

Jean-Claude Van Johnson

I find it borderline shocking that any list with 'The Tick' on it could possibly have a weirder option, but Amazon has definitely managed to come up with just that in this show.

Van Damme has experienced a bit of a renaissance in recent years by way of some self-referential projects that address the actor and his fame through a much more meta lens the film 'JCVD' chief among them. This show doubles down on that notion, making a show purportedly about the actual actor that also claims that Van Damme's entire film career was a series of cover stories for an assortment of black ops; he was an agent known simply as 'Johnson.'

I told you it was weird.

The pilot sees a bored, put-upon Van Damme deciding that he wants to return to the game after a chance meeting with his former hair stylist/black ops partner/lover Vanessa (Kat Foster). He approaches his former film agent/spy handler played by Phylicia Rashad to get back to getting him gigs of both varieties. He winds up in Bulgaria (because of course he does), working on an action reboot of 'Huckleberry Finn' and a secret mission involving planting a tracking device (because OF COURSE he does).

Van Damme is trying really hard here sometimes to his detriment. He's at his best when he allows himself to confront the realities of time's ravages there's a training montage that is either hilariously sad or sadly hilarious and when we get flashes of his existential crisis.

I am fascinated by the mere existence of this piece of Damme-ception. There's a lot of material ripe for parody here, but the concern is that the foundational joke will ultimately prove to be too one-note. Still, if they've got smart writers and talents like Peter Atencio involved, this could be exquisite.

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