Review: Amazon Fall 2015 Pilot Season



When I was 10 years old, I remember participating in a Cartoon Network programming stunt called “The Big Pick”. Running during the summers of 2000 and 2001, The Big Pick was a 53 hour marathon of original programming that ran throughout the weekend where kids could vote via phone or computer on which of the ten animated pilots would become full fledged series. Shows like The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, What Ever Happened to Robot Jones?, and Codenamed: Kids Next Door were all created from this experimental pilot program and for me, it felt good voting on the shows I’d want to see. 

As I’ve gotten older and wiser on the nature of creating television, I’ve realized how expensive and time consuming it is to even make a pilot. The traditional pilot season is super competitive and the survival odds for a pilot becoming a new series is extremely low due to analytics or executive preferences.

But with outlets like Netflix and Amazon who’re constantly looking for original content, there’s never been a better time for television auteur’s to roll the dice and take a chance on making a pilot. 

Amazon’s Pilot Season program is back and once again, viewers decide on which of the twelve pilots become full fledged series. Anyone can stream and vote on the pilots for free on Amazon’s website or video app but the inevitable shows will be exclusive for Amazon Prime members. Viewers can write reviews and give feedback on that pilots they’d like to see become series but no matter what, the Executives at Amazon will have the final word.

Instead of live action series for children, this year Amazon has ordered six animated pilots. In no particular order, here are my reviews:

Danger and Eggs

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Written by Shadi Petosky and directed by Mike Owens (both of whom are also the producers and creators), Danger and Eggs is a charming 12 minute cartoon about two friends who’re on opposite extremes. D.D. (Aidy Bryant) is a rambunctious girl who aspires to be like her daredevil dad so she performs extreme stunts. Philip (Eric Knobel) is an anthropomorphic egg who’s fragile nature makes him prone to panic and value safety but he wants to be as adventurous as Dee Dee. In the pilot, the duo ride a soon to be demolished water slide in the center of the park and nothing goes according to plan. The animation style is charming and the show has a very upbeat weirdness to its humor. Parents might not like this show for its bizarre humor but I dig it.

Yoyotoki Happy Ears!

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Directed by Sung Jin Ahn, “Yoyotoki HappyEars” is about fox (Jessica Lowe) who lives in the land called Mytholopia. Everyone in Mytholopia has magical powers, except for Yoyotoki whose normal family ended up getting lost here. Wishing she was magical like everyone else, Yoytoki along with her friends Steak (Cole Sanchez), a living gummy bear and Hotwings (Andres Salaff), a flying pig embark on a quest to find the Magic Elf King (Dee Bradley Baker) to grant her wish. Creator Niki Yang channels everything she’s picked up during her tenure on shows like Adventure Time, Clarence, and Regular Show as the show features a weird humor and a gorgeous art style that adults will enjoy probably more than kids. There’s a “being special is being yourself” moral lesson but it’s undermined by the fanatical nature of the 12 minute pilot. It feels like “Yoyotoki” should be on Cartoon Network just based on its style but considering that networks track record for cartoons with female protagonists, the pilot itself would’ve never gotten past the pitching process.

Everstar

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Written by Becky Tinker, Directed by Frank Marino, and based on Tinker’s webcomic on Thrillbent, Everstar is a fantastic science fiction pilot for kids. Adventurous Ainslie Wickett (Hynden Walch) and her best friend/engineer George (Jorge Diaz) are celebrating Ainslie’s 12th Birthday by sailing during a storm in Maine. After Ainslie intercepts an SOS signal from the lighthouse, she and George are beamed aboard the spaceship Everstar.  The ship has been in hiding behind the Earth’s Moon and the ships robot crew (Kate Higgins and Liam O’Brien) need Ainslie to protect them from a giant pirate spaceship. While defending the Everstar from the Space Pirate Captain Jintu (Roger Craig Smith), Ainslie chooses to become the captain of the Everstar and decides to warp engine across the universe to safety. Now sent millions of lightyears away from Earth, Ainslie and George search for a way back home. This show borrows elements from many science fiction shows like Star Trek, Stargate, and most notably Lost in Space but the children friendly angle is what makes this show interesting. The animation is a little weird but the designs of the characters, backgrounds, and spaceship are well done. Despite clunky writing and exposition (we never do find out why the space pirates were trying to destroy the Everstar), Ainslie is a well developed character who makes her own choices that result in deep ramifications for the crew of the Everstar. George is the less adventurous of the two humans and his reactions to the weirdness around them leads to some good laughs. There’s plenty of set up for more 22 minute adventures and the premise is strong enough for kids of all ages that want to set sail.

If You Give A Mouse A Cookie

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Written by Ken Scarborough, Directed by Jerry Popowich & Emmanuelle Gignac, and based on the children’s book of the same name by Laura Joffe Numeroff, the pilot of If You Give A Mouse A Cookie follows Oliver (Mason Mahay) and his best friend Mouse (Roger Craig Smith) on a journey to the store to get Applesauce. Along the way, things escalate just like in the book and a trip to store becomes a chain reaction of “If then” scenarios. This show is very cute with the art style mimicking the original books illustrations. It doesn’t overstay its 12 minute runtime and the writing is easy enough for kids to understand. All of the actors including the children all sound great and the music is charming enough (that theme song is pretty great too). It feels like this show should be on PBS for while it doesn’t interest me, this show would be perfect for parents who have preschoolers…if this pilot ever becomes a show.

Eddie of the Realms Eternal

Written by Bill Motz and Bob Roth and Directed by Paul Ó Muiris, Eddie of the Realms Eternal is an animated fantasy pilot animated by legendary studio Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea). Long ago, the Realms Eternal were under attack by the Black Queen (Kari Walhgren) and her army of evil monsters. To stop them, the Eleven Wizard Iwin summoned a Hero named Eddie Armstrong from the human world and together, they thwarted the Black Queen. Many years have passed and the Black Queen has returned to attack the Realms Eternal. Iwin’s grandson Hobi (Jason Spisak) is lazy and his inept magic skills are no match for the Black Queen’s army. So Hobi decides to summon Eddie Armstrong but ends up summoning his grandson Eddie the 3rd (Sloane Morgan Siegel), a high school freshman who thought the Realms Enteral was just a story. Together, the pair must find a way to get Eddie back home while avoiding many perils along the way. As you can see from the video above, the animation is absolutely gorgeous and the casting is great. Several mysteries are set up and the show ends on a great cliffhanger that’s just begging to be picked up as a series.

The Numberly’s

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Written by Joe Fallon, Directed by Saul Blinkoff, and based on the story app (no, really) by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg, The Numberly’s follows five colorful and individually numbered children who live in a homogenous, dystopian society. They wake up when told, march in line for recess (with consists of bouncing a ball five times), and perform acts of child labor. But one day, the quintet discover a green sprout emerging from the concrete. They pick up the sprout and use their heads set out to keep it alive. This CGI animated pilot is an intriguing mix of Teletubbies and Dr. Seuss. There’s a simple message about thinking outside the box and being willing to embrace change that gives the 12 minute pilot its charm. It’s definitely made with preschoolers in mind but thankfully, the writing doesn’t talk down to them. I just hope parents are totally okay with letting their babies watch a cartoon about an industrial city that has no problem with forced child labor.

And in no particular order, here are my thoughts on the six live action pilots made for adult demographics:

Edge

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Developed and Written by Shane Black (who also Directed the pilot) & Fred Dekker, Edge is an adaptation of George G. Gilman’s series of violent old west novels. Set in Missouri, 1865, Civil War veteran Josiah “Edge” Hedges (Max Martini) returns to his home town of Hate to find that his closest friends have murdered his brother (and his dog) over a mysterious treasure box. Edge becomes the towns deputy (after killing the last one) and sets out on a path of vengeance to find the men who’ve done wrong by him. The dialogue is typical spaghetti western fare and a lot of violence goes down in the one hour run time. People get shot, fingers get severed, but it’s all in the service of bloodlusy. Ryan Kwanten plays the villain Little Bill and his over the top performance rivals that of Snidely Whiplash. Several female characters like Yvonne Strahovski’s Becca shine through but ultimately, this pilot is all about guys shooting guys. By the end of the pilot, dozens of people have been shot, the entire town is decimated, our hero takes all manner of punishment like he’s an indestructible ragdoll, and I stopped caring about what this was all about. I love ultra-violence but only when it serves something other than itself.

Good Girls Revolt

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Written by Dana Calvo, Directed by Liza Johnson, and based on the Lynn Povich book of the same name, Good Girls Revolt takes place in the late 60’s before the famous sex-discrimination case and subsequent lawsuit set by female Newsweek staffers. At the Manhattan offices of the “News of the Week” magazine (they changed the name to avoid legal issues), Nora Epheron (Grace Gummer), Patti (Genevieve Angelson) and Jane (Anna Camp), are researchers who practically do all of the work reporting on articles while their male co-workers (Chris Diamantopoulos, Hunter Parish, and Jim Belushi) get all the credit. Nora wants to get the same respect her male collages get so she set up to break the glass ceiling. The casting and acting are spot on. Sets, costumes, and even licensed music perfectly encapsulate this era in American history. My one gripe is the 55 minute run time is punctured with not so groovy 60’s lingo filled exposition. There’s plenty of potential for this to be a series but only if they stop talking down to their audience. Okay, we get it! It’s the 60’s, Men are pigs, Women are treats like objects, and folks over the age of 30 aren’t hip on emerging counter culture that would define the 70’s.

Z: The Beginning of Everything

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Written by Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin, directed by Tim Blake Nelson, and based on the novel by Therese Anne Fowler, Z is a coming of age story set in Montgomery, Alabama during the first World War. The pilot follows Zelda Sayre (Christina Ricci) before she became married to legendary author F. Scott Fitzgerald. She yearns for something more in life than becoming a nurse for soldiers and she’s fed up living under her father’s (David Strathairn) strict rules. This 29 minute pilot is filled with coming of age drama cliches but the subject matter and setting is enough to make the proceedings interesting. Everyone talks with rural accent and uses polite expressions as to not offend the Lord. While Christina Ricci’s performance is passable, David Strathairn is superb as the Southern hardass Judge who has to put with his daughters shenanigans. The end of the pilot promises to explore Zelda’s relationship with her future husband (Gavin Stenhouse) but I-Do-Declare this here pilot is far from being aces. Ishkabibble…

Highston

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Written by Bob Nelson and Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Lewis Pullman stars as the titular 19-year-old who spends his time hanging out with his imaginary friends who just so happen to be famous celebrities. Nobody except Highston (and the audience) can see his imaginary friends which leads to hijinks with his family. His parents (Chris Parnell and Mary Lynn Rajskub) have had enough and issue Highston an ultimatum; either Highston gets a job and starts acting like an adult or be institutionalized. The premise is like Wilfred mixed with that episode of It’s Alway’s Sunny in Philadelphia where Dennis hallucinates he’s in rehab being harassed by Sinbad and Rob Thomas. Flea, bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Shaquille O’Neal play imaginary, exaggerated versions of themselves to help Highston cope with reality and they’re hilarious. I could see this show becoming a pit stop for celebrity cameos but the melancholy ending convinced me that this predictable comedy shouldn’t be made into a series. Highston escapes the mental ward with Shaq and Flea to find moments later that they’re gone. Highston comes to the sad, painful realization that having exhausted all of his options and pushed everyone who loved him away, he is truly alone in the world.
One Mississippi
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Written by Tig Notaro and Diablo Cody, directed by Nicole Holofcener, and loosely inspired by Nortaro’s life, One Mississippi feels like a slick combination of the rural and female centric comedy found in Parks and Recreation and the bizarre format of FX’s Louie. After performing a comedy routine on radio station in Los Angeles about stuffed animals, Tig flies back home to Mississippi to visit her mother Caroline. She’s dying of Cancer and Tig’s brother (Noah Harpster) and Stepfather (John Rothman) can’t stand watching her die. After her mom passes, Tig decides to stay in Mississippi to sort through her mother’s belongings, patch things up with her family, and date her girlfriend Brooke (Casey Wilson). This is a 28 minute black comedy about life and the laughs come from the bizarre way Tig examines her life. She’s crotchety and lays on the sarcasm thick but moments where shes vulnerable and honest are gripping to watch. Plus Tig’s ordeal of surviving chemotherapy from breast cancer while everything crumbles around her is an interesting premise for a comedy series. You can tell comedian Louis C.K. produced this pilot as it bears the right mix of absurdist humor and melancholy he’s well known for. One Mississippi earns the label of being a dramedy as it stands out from other comedian shows by being intimate with Tig’s stark and often moving words.

Patriot

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Written and Directed by Steve Conrad, Patriot is an Espionage dramedy. John Tavner (Michael Dorman) is an intelligence officer for the U.S. Government who’s suffering with PTSD. His manipulative father Thomas Tavner (Terry O’Quinn) is the head of Security and he has no problems using John and his other son Edward (Michael Chernus) to do whatever it takes to protect his Country. John’s latest assignment is to prevent Iran from going nuclear. To do this, John goes undercover as a mid-level employee at a Midwestern industrial piping firm. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go as planned as John struggles with his mental instability and an ever-escalating series of setbacks. This 58 minute pilot is clever with its subversion of the usual spy tropes but it’s also very unsettling with its humor. For instance, John riffs a guitar folk song inspired by the morbid things he’s done on his last mission. It’s so hilarious and so painful due to how genuine it sounds. Closest thing I could compare this pilot to is “Mr. Robot” but that might be to lofty. Not every joke lands and some of the cinematography feels uninspired. But there’s plenty of potential for this farce as this genre lends itself quite well to dark humor and brutal violence.

In an ideal world, all of these shows would get picked up by Amazon. They’re all great but sadly, we don’t live in such a world. Amazon is a business and the bottom line is that this pilot season helps them determine which pilots are the best and and worth the money for consumers to justify a Prime membership. There will be winners and there will be losers. The winners will become series while the losers will be phased out of Amazon’s Video service (mainly due to licensing agreements) and become nothing. It sucks but such is the nature of chasing success.

I’ve already casted my votes on each show and I’ve picked my favorite pilots of this seasons crop. Everstar is my favorite animated pilot for kids 6-12. Its premise is refreshing, its lead character is compelling, and it left me wanting to see more. The Numberly’s is my favorite animated pilot for the preschool crowd. While it’s not a show I’d ever watch, it’s a bold and charming show that asks kids to be and think different. My favorite Comedy One Mississippi isn’t strictly speaking a comedy but an interesting, powerful hybrid of family drama and looking of the bright side of dark times. Lastly, for its clever mix of violence, paranoia, and spy thriller tropes, my pick for favorite drama goes to Patriot.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which pilot’s I like because the final decision process will be made by all of us. The viewers who watched, the creators who made them, and the Executives who’ll look at raw numbers. I firmly believe that picking pilots is an art form because no amount of analytics can determine what show will become a hit until people watch it. So seize this rare opportunity to decide the future of television and binge away at these pilots that cost millions of dollars to make. Who knows, your favorite might become a hit series.

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