When you make a television pilot, your audience is a group of network executives who make final decisions and test audiences who are used as a barometer of how America will respond to said pilots. It’s why pilots tend to be bigger, and broader, and in general more attention-grabbing—for better or for worse—than episodes that come after.
In this way, Amazon’s “democratic” pilot process—in which they make their pilots available online for audience voting before making final pick-up decisions—is not necessarily out of the ordinary. Writers and producers have always known that their work would need to meet dueling expectations of executives and audiences, so we have yet to see a completely new approach to television pilots emerge from the process.
However, the way each of this year’s comedy and drama pilots—I’m excluding the kids’ shows—engages with the specificity of the Amazon experience has been particularly fascinating for me, even in its subtlety. Part of this stems from the overdetermined nature of the audience feedback within rhetoric surrounding the series: in Amazon’s universe, customers are selecting what shows go on the air. Forget for a moment their Golden Globe-winning Transparent drew the least customer votes and scored the lowest customer scores during its pilot process—in Amazon’s mind, this is about the audience, and so it makes sense for producers to angle harder in that direction and play to their assumed test audience.
Yet this is further amplified by the fact that there is even less clarity than usual regarding what precisely Amazon is looking for. Whereas working with a broadcast network or established cable channel gives you a basic sense of brand identity and programming strategy, Amazon has been all over the map, making it up as they go along. While we can start to see trends in their focus on Transparent’s awards success, we still have no clear sense of who their perceived audience is, or what their demographic priorities are. Do they want shows for men or women? Are they privileging comedy or drama? We don’t even know how many shows they’re willing to pick up, given that they have no “schedule” with empty slots, and have theoretically bottomless pockets from which to fund their move into original programming.
It’s plausible that those creating this cycle of Amazon pilots know more than we do about Amazon’s plans, but the fact remains that the audience is the clearer target, and there are a range of strategies that the pilots unfurl to ensure positive responses and high scores in the areas that they believe count most—or at least count a little—with Amazon.
Down Dog and Salem Rogers: Model of the Year 1998
Amazon’s two comedies this cycle indicate that despite Transparent’s breakout success, there is not a huge push for innovation in this category. They are notably gender-split, with both focused on themes of life reinvention but from male and female perspectives, respectively. Both end with what we perceive as the workplace setup that the show would move forward with: Down Dog puts its stuck-in-place yoga instructor in charge of running a business and getting his life back together, while Salem Rogers has its eponymous star restarting her model career with her life coach and new assistant at her side. It’s Comedy Pilot 101, introducing characters through conflict but eventually bringing them together under one roof to move forward as an ensemble.
The difference is that the two shows use separate paths to investing audiences in these characters. Down Dog goes to the pilot well with voiceover narration, a choice that suffers because the lead character—I have zero recollection of his name—is incredibly boring. That’s part of the character, of course: he’s meant to be a bit of a stoner surfer type, and that’s fine. But the narration works too hard to underline—and double underline—key themes and ideas, lest the audience not understand the very rote patterns the show is drafting off of. It’s a device that struggles to work in great shows, but it’s particularly problematic when it’s tied to something that feels overdetermined.
Salem Rogers may be similarly rote in terms of its plot development, but the cast has more chemistry (Leslie Bibb and Rachel Dratch make a good pair) and the show has a pulse. This doesn’t mean it’s a great pilot, but there’s some good jokes, and the flow is alright, and the In Medias Res opening creates at least some investment in where these characters end up in six months. Salem Rogers is one of three Amazon pilots to open In Medias Res, and it serves as an effective bookend: while we initially think we’re seeing the end of her transformation, the return to the opening scene reframes it as rock bottom, and productively ties Dratch and the series’ comic tone into the narrative structure. It heightens the sense that your understanding of these characters has evolved over the course of the pilot without outright laying out that growth through voiceover, and makes it the more promising comedy by a significant margin.
Point of Honor and Mad Dogs
The other two shows to open with In Medias Res openings follow a different kind of strategy. Rather than using the In Medias Res as a bookend, both Mad Dogs and Point of Honor open at a point in the future that the pilot itself never returns to.
In the case of Point of Honor, we open on a fierce battle in the midst of the Civil War, focused on two soldiers who we later learn are brothers-in-law who were at West Point together until the war broke out. We get the first glimpse of that conflict when the Yankee—is Yankee the right word? I’m playing the Canada card here—watches as his commanding officer shoots his father-in-law in cold blood, but the opening promises a more climactic battle to come.
It’s not a bad way to create anticipation in theory, although in practice Point of Honor is the worst of the Amazon pilots I’ve watched in their various cycles. While its In Medias Res instincts aren’t terrible, the execution of everything else fails on almost every level. Its biggest problem is that its characters are more or less reduced to principle. The Confederate soldier returns home and insists on fighting for the South while simultaneously freeing the family’s slaves, a choice that makes moral sense to us as modern audiences but is used as a blunt instrument to signify “goodness” instead of actually stemming from a particular character motivation. It means that everything rings hollow—we have no idea who these slaves are, meaning their freedom is purely abstract, and an exercise more than a significant character moment for them or even those freeing them. The pilot further struggles from uneven anachronism: while the youngest sister is hyper-sexualized and dropping phrases that have no business in a Civil War-era drama, the African American characters are in heavy vernacular common in historical dramas, further othering the characters already marginalized by the narrative writ large. Throw in some consistently weak production values and a host of historical inaccuracies that signal a sillier show than the one it aspires to be, and you have a pilot that I imagine most channels would be too embarrassed to put on the air, albeit one that has the basic pulse of Point A to Point B that In Medias Res offers.
Mad Dogs follows a similar strategy on paper: after opening on its four central characters running out of the jungles of Belize in full “tribal” garb brandishing weapons, we flash instead to their mild-mannered arrival at their friend’s villa. It’s a purposeful juxtaposition, asking us to imagine how exactly this debaucherous vacation could turn into something so severe. It functions similar to something like Damages in this way, reframing everything we see in the present as a step along the road to something much more ominous.
It works, and overall Mad Dogs is an attractive, well-cast, and well-performed piece of television. Its problem is that in an effort to create juxtaposition, the pilot itself ends up spending a lot of time in a far less interesting show than what its opening scene suggests. The convergence of four mid-life crises lacks dynamism, relying heavily on exposition and drawing its most significant “thrill” from a sex tape sequence that felt gratuitous and exploitative (particularly given the casual othering of the local woman in question). The show needs to establish that these men are unhappy with their lives, and I understand the value of seeding the increase in stakes slowly, but the kind of problems the show dwells on are something I’m invested in as a viewer.
But then the dinner scene unfolds, and a short man in a cat mask walks into the house, and everything changes. It’s the trigger that sets off the entire story, and it’s an incredibly creepy and effective sequence. It shows the series’ adeptness at capturing the terror of finding yourself in a dangerous situation unexpectedly, and the aftermath rightfully disrupts anything we’d seen previously. It makes you want to see how that aftermath continues to play out, especially given that the pilot just ends. In this way, more than any other pilot, Mad Dogs plays as the first part of a contained story, offering zero closure and not even really bringing the opening chapter to its conclusion. It feels like the story is just getting started, a strategy that makes me interested in seeing more but without more than a scene or two of evidence to understand what that story will look like.
It’s a strategy I respect, and one that is more common in a straight-to-series, serialized era: rather than creating a pilot that functions as a contained unit, requiring the story to re-establish stakes in the second hour, Mad Dogs acknowledges that storytelling doesn’t move that way, and seems to preview a show that would serve well for binge viewing. The problem is that by lingering quite so long in a less interesting show, the pilot itself isn’t as engaging as one imagines the series to be, limiting the initial excitement in favor of boosting anticipation (and the survey questions attached to it).
The Man in the High Castle and Cocked
One of the other strategies evident across three of the four drama pilots is the presence of a full credit sequence. These are actually uncommon in pilots: as the show hasn’t officially been picked up yet, there often isn’t an investment made in an opening sequence that may never be used (and which may change based on how the show is positioned by the network/channel that picks it up). However, perhaps to help the pilots walk the walk of prestige drama, Point of Honor, Cocked, and The Man in the High Castle all use them.
It’s not exactly necessary: Mad Dogs doesn’t have one, and it passes the tests of authenticity and artistry we tend to use to determine whether something qualifies as “quality television.” And in the case of Point of Honor, it comes across as a sad attempt at replicating better shows, lacking any clear design sensibility beyond slow motion patriotism. Cocked fares better, opening with a stylized glimpse into the gun business that drives the pilot forward and sets the stage for the family drama that follows, but it’s still mostly there to signify that this is a show of a certain level of prestige and acclaim.
The Man in the High Castle’s opening title sequence is different. Yes, it like the others exists in part to mark this as a certain kind of show (someone on Twitter referred to it as a prestige show, which is exactly what Amazon/producers want), but it’s also a huge part of the pilot’s success at mapping out its alternative history. The choice to convey information through the title sequence is a big part of why the Philip K. Dick adaptation doesn’t get bogged down in early exposition, using the credits as a key piece of worldbuilding. Relying heavily on visual effects to create not only a period piece but an imagined world in which the United States has been divided into German and Japanese states, the credits offer an early signal of the show’s spatiality while also creating a certain bleakness in its imagery that carries over into the rest of the pilot.
It’s the strongest of the six pilots as well, confident and purposeful as it balances the worldbuilding burden of its premise while nonetheless developing characters. It’s a far more traditional pilot than either Mad Dogs or Point of Honor, moving linearly and shifting between character perspectives to give different angles on this world. It sets its two central characters Joe and Juliana on converging paths, their respective journeys anchoring the episode and creating a clear beginning, middle, and end. That middle is dotted with literal and metaphorical roadblocks, and the story pushes out to the characters around them to explore other dimensions of the series’ premise. The macro-political dimensions offer a glimpse at future complexity, the inter-personal dimensions flesh out the ensemble, and the twist at the end rewrites our impressions and keeps us on edge for future developments. The performances are strong, the visual signature is distinct, and it’s easily the most excited I’ve been about an Amazon drama project.
Cocked is a very similar pilot: opening with glimpses of two brothers in very different situations, the pilot unsurprisingly brings the brothers back together, playing out like any dysfunctional family drama you could imagine, just set at a gun company. It even mirrors The Man in the High Castle’s use of the last-second twist as a way to increase interest, undercutting the audience’s perception and throwing suspicion in new directions. The show is well cast, and a show built around Sam Trammell, Jason Lee, Dreama Walker, and Brian Dennehy is not a bad proposition.
The problem is that Cocked doesn’t have much else going for it. It’s structurally sound, but the themes and setting of the piece are either overdone—Lee’s coke-snorting sex fiend in particular—or just kind of unpleasant. Even if it’s not surprising, it’s nonetheless strange that no character on the show lays out the moral dimensions of arming regular citizens—while concerns about gun culture are raised, they are dismissed as the domain of the overprotective mother, and there are no ties to real political and sociocultural debate surrounding the topic. The guns become a “sexy” backdrop for the family drama, a choice that makes the show feel more frivolous than it should (and could) if more attention were paid to the world around them.
We live in the “straight-to-series” era, allegedly. More cable channels and broadcast networks are pushing for orders that give writers more time to write, and allow for storytelling that matches the realities of how people are watching television today. Amazon joined this club with their Woody Allen series, ostensibly skipping over the pilot process they’ve created and confirming that in certain circumstances they’ll skip over their makeshift democracy entirely. In such circumstances, the pilot becomes less of a bounded entity, never having to fully stand on its own.
I am on the record as skeptical at how important audience voting is to Amazon’s process, but it’s a compelling incubator for the “pilot” as a very specific televisual form. While the pilot was never going to die even when Kevin Reilly proposed killing the traditional pilot season, Amazon is keeping it alive in an overdetermined environment where the idea of a television pilot is put on a pedestal. The choices made in the development of these pilots may not have all been shaped by attempting to appeal to certain audiences, but the choices they make feel more deliberate than when we’re watching something that might have been reshot based on other audience testing or run through a more rigorous network pickup process. Every pilot we see is caught in the liminal space between the start of a series and an artifact of television development’s high turnover rate, and it makes every in medias res opening or title sequence a pitch for the former instead of the latter.
- My one major critique of The Man in the High Castle is the fact that the Japanese and German characters consistently speaking English to one another even when in private conversation. I almost wonder if it was a conscious strategy to broaden the show’s appeal and avoid audience comments about the amount of “reading” necessary to watch the series. Either way, it’s something I’d hope would be shifted once they leave the “democratic” process.
- Down Dog’s use of the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack as a musical signature drove me absolutely insane: not only is it distracting to use an existing film or TV soundtrack for your own series, but it’s also some rather flagrant cultural appropriation.
- Cards on the table: I say Amazon picks up The Man in the High Castle, Mad Dogs, and Salem Rogers. Cocked is on the bubble.