Deadshirt is Watching… Amazon Pilot Season!

Deadshirt Is Watching…is a weekly feature in which Deadshirt staff, contributors, and guests sound off on the television shows we’re tuned into, from intense dramas to clever sitcoms to the most insane reality shows. This week, our staff divided and conquered ten shows of the new Amazon Pilot Season!

Cocked

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There’s a moment in the pilot episode of Cocked when Jason Lee’s character, hopped up on cocaine, decides that the best way to pass the surprise drug screening he has coming up the next day would be to catheter clean urine from someone else into his own bladder. This idea is the ridiculous invention of a drug-addled mind, but the rest of the cast, stone-cold sober, are all more than happy to comply, even going so far as to help him find drug-free pee. I feel like that might be a good representation of the entire production of Cocked: a basically bad idea that a lot of people decided to take entirely too seriously.

At its heart, Cocked is your classic fish-out-of-water comedy, centered around the Paxson family. Older brother Grady (the aforementioned Jason Lee) is in line to take over the family gun manufacturing business from father Wade (Brian Dennehy)—if his uncle Rayburn, with his rival gun company, doesn’t bankrupt them first. Enter estranged brother Richard (Sam Trammell, of True Blood fame), who gets called in to use his white-collar corporate savvy to save the Paxson business, all the while trying to keep his middle-class, liberal wife and kids out of his family’s line of fire, so to speak. The whole thing is a little bit Mad Men, a little bit Arrested Development, and a lot confused about what it’s doing on a screen.

The show has a lot to say about guns and gun culture, and sheds a lot of positive light on these topics, but stops just short of taking any kind of actual stance on gun control. The impetus for Richard’s return to the Paxson fold is the hitman that shows up to threaten him (with a gun, obviously) after Wade refuses to sell the company to Rayburn. This later leads to what I expected to be a “good guy with a gun/bad guy with a gun” situation between said hitman and Grady, which would have made a massive statement, to be sure. But instead, the hitman causes Richard to crash his car, which catches fire, and it’s up to Grady to pull Richard out. The resolution feels so jarringly odd, you immediately wonder why it’s happening. Meanwhile, Richard’s big plan to save the family business involves marketing guns to the LGBT community, which would have been a neat narrative choice, except the show decides to take Grady’s catheter idea more seriously, and the whole effect is lost.

If you’re into grotesque stereotypes of liberals and conservatives in the USA (guess which Paxson brother owns both a Prius AND a labradoodle), this might be the show for you. If you’ve ever thought “I might like to watch something that both directly references the Newtown massacre and has some boobs in it,” then this might be the show for you. If you really liked Trammell’s performance in True Blood, or you’re some kind of Jason Lee completionist, then this might be the show for you. If none of this applies to you, this show won’t be your friend. Spend an hour doing anything else. Trust me; you’ll have a better time.

– Adam Pelta-Pauls

The Man In The High Castle
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Everyone loves a bit of alt history, the addictive game of “what if?” writ large against a dramatic backdrop. The Man In The High Castle jumps off from a well worn premise—”What if the allied powers had lost World War II?”—but shows promise that it will explore more fascinating themes than merely guestimating a remixed 20th century. Set in 1962, in an America split up into spoils by Nazi Germany and Japan, the show deftly paints a portrait of a world like ours twisted in some sharp, disturbing ways. Visually, it feels like a cross between Mad Men and that frustrating spate of music videos shot primarily in front of green screens, a mixture of creative authenticity and purposeful detachment from reality. The reliance on digital effects is probably more a testament to the show’s budget than any stylistic decisions, but it does work in the show’s favor, helping to distance this world from the one we know to be our own.

The pilot intercuts between three primary narratives. The first follows Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a fiery young man in New York (in The Greater Reich, the Nazi-owned East Coast) getting his first big assignment from the resistance to drive a truck into the neutral zone of the Rocky Mountain States. The next story introduces us to Julianna Crain (Alexa Davalos), an Aikido enthusiast living in Japanese-controlled San Francisco with her secretly Jewish boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans). Her sister Trudy (Conor Leslie) gives her a mysterious parcel, right before being killed by the police for treason. The third and shorter plot strand concerns Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a Japanese businessman who meets in secret with a Nazi military officer about the threat of war between the two former allies.

The show is admirably acted and efficiently written (by X-Files alum Frank Spotnitz), with some legitimate twists and turns and a lot of spy-fi, post-war intrigue, but the key bit of interest in the pilot concerns the central artifact from the Philip K. Dick novel the series is based on. In the novel, there’s a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy that tells the story of a world where the Axis powers don’t win WWII that’s written by a man who lives in a guarded estate, hence the book’s title. For the show, this was smartly adapted to be a propaganda film. When Julianna’s sister leaves her a copy, the sequence of her watching scenes from (ostensibly) our world, where FDR stayed President and scores of American soldiers return home victorious, it’s beautifully realized and haunting. While the show seems principally concerned with being a tense thriller, the novel was preoccupied with the nature of reality and authenticity. In this one scene alone, the notion that a veil is being lifted and the world we live in is not the one we were promised is implicit, and it hints at greater narrative complexity than anything regarding the resistance or another impending war. Should this go to series, it’s those fascinating questions raised that we’ll be pondering answers to, as it should be.

– Dominic Griffin  

Just Add Magic
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Three suburban culinary-enthusiast preteens, Kelly, Darbie, and Hannah, find a cookbook from Kelly’s grandma hidden in the attic. They discover that recipes like “Shut Em Up Shortcake” and “Hazelnut Healing Tart” work for their titled purpose when fed to a subject, preventing them from speaking and healing minor injuries, respectively. This is seemingly thanks to the magical ingredient “Cedronian Vanilla,” which they procure from their vaguely mysterious local health food shop owner. The spells work on a basic conservation of magical energy premise, wherein whomever puts the vanilla into the recipe receives the opposite effect of the spell (in this case, the inability to stop talking, and the inability to use a limb). The method of breaking the spell is a little more dubious in its magic lore, requiring a kind act on the part of the baker (telling your little brother you care about him even though he’s a horrible brat; handing over Captaincy of the basketball team to that overenthusiastic girl who really wants it).

The writing is a bit stilted, the catchphrase “holy bananapants” needs to be excised immediately, and at times the level of sentimentality approaches on cloying, but the general concept of Just Add Magic is fun, and its realization shows some promise. The show centers around girls practicing a traditionally feminine activity, but doesn’t overdo the girliness of it. Conversations with her male baker buddy place Kelly as a precocious foodie nerd rather than a housewife-in-training, while the juxtaposition of the girls’ other major activity—the basketball team—ensure that the pilot walks a line of girly and tomboyish that might allow it to hold the interest of viewers of either predilection.

The lighthearted pilot features an awkwardly-inserted serious core conflict, in which Kelly deals with her grandmother’s apparent Alzheimers. Kelly is convinced that her grandmother’s dementia is the result of a spell, and she ends the episode by compelling her friend-sidekicks into a magical baking pact for the purpose of discovering a cure. If the show gets a season, will curses be a metaphor for illness or wishful thinking on the part of a kid learning to cope with real-life problems?

– Jen Overstreet

Down Dog

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As an avid fan of both Drunk History and The Thrilling Adventure Hour, I came into Down Dog really hoping for something to give me a more regular Paget Brewster fix. Unfortunately, I can’t see myself sticking with this show. We are introduced to our main character through a narrative voiceover (performed by veteran VO guy Tom Kane) in a tone indicating we are about to observe some slapstick stupidity from our main character. But we never get that follow-through, and, well, it certainly does the job of setting the tone for the show in the first two minutes.

After 32 minutes, I’m still not sure how we’re supposed to feel about our main character, Logan, a directionless yoga instructor who has skated through life on good looks and the Power of Chill. Logan (Josh Casaubon) has all of the characteristics American comedies generally use as shorthand for “hate this guy:” he’s handed everything, he has no goals, he’s a cliched-out spiritualist, and he’s sexualized by women. But he’s also unassuming, kind, and faithful to his long-time girlfriend, Amanda (Paget Brewster). Maybe that sounds like a complex, interesting character on paper, and maybe that’s why this project moved forward, but in practice, the character is just…inert. When conflict is introduced, he just shrugs and things work themselves out. That’s not entertainment; that’s the Konami Code. Even in the final scene of the episode, when Logan finally stands up and fires the office assistant who has been undercutting him at every turn, not much feels different. It is the most relaxed firing you could imagine—“this just isn’t going to, ah, work out.”

The “joke” moments —the busted Buddha statue’s head rolling out of the studio past a mother and her young children, for instance—feel like they were scripted for another show. Those cringing, awkward moments only work if your protagonist, or at least someone on screen, is cringing at them. But our guy has apparently never felt awkward or really experienced any conflict in his life, so when some comedic wrench is thrown in the works, he just shrugs, and so do we. Perhaps the show could be improved with the addition of a more relatable point-of-entry character, a Jim Halpert who lets us know how the narrative is trying to frame these characters and moments. Even with Logan taking on challenges he’s never faced before by running his yoga studio on his own, I don’t see how this show, with its current set of tools, could improve. There’s just no dynamic energy. I recommend you listen to “Beyond Belief” episodes of The Thrilling Adventure Hour instead.

– Cameron DeOrdio 

Niko and the Sword of Light

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The intro to the pilot episode of Niko and the Sword of Light gives us the show’s background and premise: there was once an Empire of Light that got too greedy, so a curse of Darkness was placed on the kingdom, poisoning the land and wiping out all of humanity save one boy, Niko (Felix Avita), who is the last hope to “bring us back to the light.”  In the episode, Niko saves a small rodent and himself from being eaten by a large, three-headed rat. It turns out that the rat was actually three normal rodents fused together by the darkness, but Niko fixes them using his Sword of Light. The rescued rodent, Mandok (Tom Kenny), instructs Niko to go through the Swamp of Sorrow in order to reach the Cursed Volcano, to where Niko is venturing. After a mishap involving a waterslide, Niko ends up lost in the swamp and facing off against a giant evil frog called Mugwhump (Jim Cummings). A first confrontation is unsuccessful, and Niko ends up being ingested by the frog, but with the help of a Turtle named Chomsky (Dee Bradley Baker), Niko escapes Mugwhump’s stomach and dispels the darkness of the frog, and simultaneously the whole swamp, and continues on his quest towards the Volcano.

Adapted from a 2013 animated comic of the same name, Niko and the Sword of Light hits a lot of the same beats as other post-apocalyptic odyssey cartoons, specifically Adventure Time and Samurai Jack: there’s the protagonist that is the last of his kind, a magic sword, talking animal secondary characters, and personified darkness/evil. The recommended age for the show is 6-11, so the humor and storytelling are aged down from those series, which I guess also excuses the writers for trying to replicate an element of Adventure Time poorly. In Adventure Time, it’s never stated how the world got the way it is and why Finn is the last human, and the audience is left to find any historical developments the same time Finn or another character does. But in Niko, the exposition tells us what happened to all the humans, but Niko has no memory of the events or even that he is a human. At one point in the pilot he finds a coin with the picture of a head on it; when he doesn’t know what it is Mandok remarks, “It looks like one of you!” It seems like the show is trying to set up a mystery, but we already know he’s human, and we know what happened to the rest of them, so what’s so mysterious? That’s a little nitpick-y; the show is otherwise very engaging and pretty to look at. I’m not sure if I would watch any more on my own, but if I had a child or sibling in the appropriate age range who enjoyed it, I could definitely see myself watching it with them.

– Julian Ames

Point of Honor

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Oh boy this thing. Carlton Cuse and Randall Wallace’s Amazon pilot focuses on the (sigh) Point of Honor plantation in Virginia at the outbreak of the Civil War. The “hook” of the show is that while the influential Rhodes family sides with the Confederacy, they opt to release all of their slaves for…some reason. Then there’s Rhodes daughter Lorelei, who is torn between her obligation to her family and her love for her Union soldier husband Robert. Also, the scumbag congressman from The Dark Knight Rises plays the Rhodes’ pater familias and (highlight for SPOILER:) ends up the show’s Sean Bean in record time.

Point of Honor, or “The Family That Hedged Their Bets,” clearly wants to be something akin to an American Downton Abbey. It boasts an ensemble cast, and a big focus of the pilot is the question of how the plantation will stay solvent now that there aren’t slaves to maintain it. This could’ve been a compelling question to raise and explore over an entire season, maybe examining how “normal people” get by without the morally repugnant but economically invaluable system of slavery. Point of Honor is, unfortunately, not smart enough to be that show. Instead, we’re treated to some High Caliber Bullshit where “Amazing Grace” plays as Point of Honor’s slaves hug and cheer after being released from bondage. Characters breathlessly deliver lines like “The South Carolinians have fired upon Fort Sumter in open war!” and otherwise remind us that 1861 IS A VERY IMPORTANT TIME, DEWEY COX GARLAND RHODES.

With neighbor off to fight neighbor, the three Rhodes sisters are charged with running the plantation. Lorelei is the Worried One, Kate is the Also Worried But Says Things Very Confidently One, and I guess Estella is supposed to be the Wild One because she smokes cigars, flirts, and threatens to shoot a guy’s dick off (which is not as amusing as it sounds). I don’t expect characters in a pilot to feel 100% realized, but of the ten or so major characters we’re introduced to here, none of them are especially memorable. Another bummer is that, despite the lush shooting locale of rural Virginia, this is a very boring-looking show. I’m not asking for Hannibal-style artisanal weirdness, but the episode has all the visual flair of a PBS documentary your high school history teacher would put on because he’s hung over. Point of Honor disappointed me on pretty much every level, skip it and rewatch Cold Mountain on Netflix instead.

– Max Robinson

The New Yorker Presents
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The New Yorker Presents is pretty much exactly what you expect: a highbrow half-hour of short subjects that should appeal to intellectuals forty and up. Like the print publication on which it’s based, the pilot to TNYP offers fiction, non-fiction, and even poetry. In each segment, the producers have attempted to make good use of the advantages of video. The opening comedy sketch, which stars Alan Cumming as God trying to coach a ragged street doomsayer, just wouldn’t work as well on the page, even in comics form. The interview with performance artist Marina Abramovic would be pretty much meaningless without the ability to view her work. The cover story, a documentary by Jonathan Demme about a biologist whose work and reputation have been mercilessly attacked by agribusiness, is instantly more compelling than the 2014 print article on which it’s based because it lets you look its subject in the eye and hear his story in his own voice. The only place where the format isn’t put to good use is in the short cartoon interstitials, where instead of creating brief animated segments, we simply watch cartoonist Emily Flake draw a single-panel joke comic in time lapse.

In terms of tone and quality, it’s similarly predictable. The New Yorker Presents is designed for an audience who “doesn’t watch television.” (Translation: they only watch premium cable dramas and news magazines, which, of course, don’t count as “television.”) It’s essentially an edgier version of CBS Sunday Morning, one more likely to capture the next generation of upper-middle-class intellectuals. (Meaning the generation after the Baby Boomers.) None of this is a condemnation; there’s room in the universe for this show, and nobody’s going to do it better than The New Yorker themselves. My suspicion is, however, that it’s not going to hold the attention of the young audience that’s required to support an online-only series.

– Dylan Roth

Salem Rogers: Model of the Year 1998

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Salem Rogers: Model of the Year 1998 is built on a Holy Trinity of awesome people: Mean Girls director Mark Waters, the long-suffering comedic diamond Rachel Dratch, and patented portrayer of Hot Crazy Women, Leslie Bibb, all doing what they do best. Unfortunately, their best is not good enough, and that’s a real shame.

Salem Rogers, which follows its titular washed-out supermodel protagonist (Bibb) and her doormat Agatha (Dratch) as they attempt to rebuild Salem’s long-dead modeling career, isn’t bad in the way that some of these other pilots are bad (poor Amazon pilot season!). It’s actually got a solid construction, a huge amount of talent, and a premise that holds a lot of potential. What seems to have happened here is that the producers, and especially newbie writer Lindsey Stoddart, got caught up in the pressure of the One-Episode-Only Amazon cooker. The show feels desperate in its need to be both edgy and funny, and the result is an obscenely high raunchy dialogue-to-minute ratio. This is a common issue with TV comedies in their early episodes that I find particularly frustrating, because piling on filthy jokes is the easy part. The hard part is creating characters that are likable, or at the very least, believable. So when Salem Rogers comes in swinging with dick-gargling and beef jerky farts and unadulterated racism and the catchphrase “Right on, tampon,” I’m more exhausted than titillated. Now, that’s not to say Salem Rogers is doomed—in fact, I’m putting my money on this one going forward—but it needs to take a big step back, a deep breath, and start building itself from the bottom up. There will be time for plenty of penis jokes in the future, Salem Rogers, I promise, but you can’t just fart in my face and walk away like that. Not okay, Salem Rogers. Not okay.

– Haley Winters

Table 58

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I’ll be the first to admit that, at nearly twenty-six years old, I fall a little bit outside of the intended audience of Table 58, the Netflix kids show about a group of misfits who share a lunch table and get into and out of scrapes together. However, I’ve got a pretty high level of patience for kids shows, so I took a crack at it, and generally liked what I saw. The show follows Logan Davis (Nathaniel J. Potvin), a transfer student and would-be football star, as he acclimates to his new, highly stratified school. Being a new kid, he’s exiled immediately to lunch table 58, which is made up of misfits and wannabes. It’s a familiar premise (Amazon reviews compared it to everything from The Breakfast Club to Square Pegs to Community), but what sets it apart is the clever variety of character types. Table 58 isn’t just made up of kids seeking to climb to the top of the social pyramid. There’s also a general slacker, a would-be nerd, and even an ersatz bully.

This diversity of character types and goals provides a bit more creativity to the middle school ugly ducklings story, and reflects actual school experience a little more accurately. Not that accuracy is what the show is going for, or anything; most of the jokes are pretty broad, and at least in the pilot, few characters develop beyond initial sketches. But it’s likeable enough, and the single camera setup provides more room for dynamic gags and set-pieces than a lot of Disney or Nickelodeon fare.

– Joe Stando

Mad Dogs

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I had no idea what to expect from Mad Dogs, knowing only that a combination of sixties drama Mad Men and unwatchable dad comedy Old Dogs was not possible in this universe. Like Old Dogs, Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, Grown Ups 2, and upcoming Belgian remake The Loft, Mad Dogs is in a subgenre I’m gonna go ahead and call “Dad Pad.” Dad Pad movies are basically about four well-off dudes having a midlife crisis who all meet up at a location away from their normal lives and then Something Goes Down. Women are either nagging hags or temptations from their normal lives, and everybody, both actors and characters, make unseemly stabs at relevance. I’m pretty sick of these stories because they have zero relevance to my life as a young poor person, but maybe that’ll change when all my hair falls out and I get married to a vintage Trans-Am (in twenty minutes).

Like all Dad Pads, the Belizean villa of Mad Dogs is stacked with a great cast (Romany Malco, Steve Zahn, Billy Zane, Michael Imperioli) being wasted on overbudgeted and indulgent stabs at intrigue. It’s tragic because I love all these guys and there are some great bits, like Zane as a jungle paradise version of Lex Luthor, Zahn’s goofball who finds a hat in the damn jungle, and a climactic murder that approaches Lynchian weirdness. These shining moments only highlight that Mad Dogs has the same problems as most middle aged dudes with too much money, namely being utterly devoid of style and hamstrung with self-serious masculinity. Is it possible that the British series it’s based off of comes closer to being the “dry black comedy” that it’s advertised as? Absolutely. However, expecting that this US adaptation is going to suddenly dig in its heels and become something pointed and satirical is an exercise in, and I’m so sorry for this pun, barking up the wrong tree.

– Mike Pfeiffer

That’s what we’ve been watching this week. What are you tuned into? Let us know in the comments, post on our Facebook page, or tweet us @DeadshirtDotNet!

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