At the beginning of 2013, Amazon had no original television programming. Two years later, the online retailer has evolved into a game-changing studio with two Golden Globe Awards from the critically-acclaimed series Transparent. This month, Amazon has unleashed 13 new series for the latest installment of its pilot program. Based on your feedback, Amazon will choose which of these pilot episodes will fade away, and which will live on as fully-produced TV series on the company’s Prime subscription video service.
We’ve watched them all, and chosen five from the fray as our favorites. Murder, espionage, and half-naked disciples are all part of the ride in these new creations vying for your oh-so-precious streaming minutes. So follow us below to find out which of Amazon’s latest hopefuls are worth checking out right now.
40 is the new 20, and dead goats in swimming pools the new retirement gifts in this adaptation of the British thriller series of the same name. The pilot explores what happens when four middle-aged friends find themselves stuck in the middle of a murder mystery during a visit to the stunning villa owned by their misanthropic friend Milo, played by Billy Zane. The pilot is a fun and suspenseful ride with an effective ensemble cast comprisiong Joel (Ben Chaplin), Lex (Michael Imperioli), Gus (Romany Malco) and Cobi (Steve Zahn), the latter of which continues his annoying, yet lovable tendency to overact. Malco, in particular, delivers one of his most stirring dramatic performances 47 minutes into the pilot as he explains to the four friends that they are trapped in Belize.
The pilot flies by once the light background stories and overblown party scenes give way to an old-fashioned crime mystery and extortion plot. If it continues on its current course, Mad Dogs could make for an easy binge watch that will consume days of your life.
When Times Square ads are replaced with Nazi emblems and Hitler is the only person keeping peace, you know you have stumbled upon something horrifying. The Man In The High Castle, based on the scintillating 1962 novel of the same name by Phillip K. Dick, transports you to an alternate universe in which the Allies lost World War II and the Americas are occupied by Germany and Japan. The creative fleshing out of all of the entangled realities that arise from a Nazi-run America offer the pilot’s core strength, with the cast of actors mostly serving as skillful plot drivers meant to carry the viewer through the story without individualizing their separate perspectives.
The Ridley Scott creation is in a league of its own, and has the bearings of a hit right out of the gate. No other pilot in the lot has so many intriguing story lines, each strong enough to carry a series on their own. The inaugural episode has already grown into a fan favorite, with an average rating of 5 stars and twice as many reviews as any of the rest of the pilots. Look for this one to make the cut, and turn a lot of heads in the process.
Amazon does not bundle magazine subscriptions with Prime memberships, but The New Yorker Presents is the next best thing. Produced by Emmy and Oscar winner Alex Gibney, The New Yorker Presents is a brilliant 30-minute visual tour through what feels like the creation of an issue from the magazine in motion. Viewers are transitioned between each story with illustrations from cartoonist Emily Flake, putting her signature touch on the screen that helps bring that indelible aesthetic that has helped make The New Yorker so instantly recognizable. The pilot is as much about the legacy of The New Yorker as the stories themselves.
The only noticeable flaw we took away from the pilot episode is the fact that the standout performances of Alan Cummings as God and Brett Gelman as a half-naked apostle last only three minutes when there’s enough comedic chemistry for a full season. The New Yorker Presents pilot feels relatively short at 30 minutes, and with a 30-second intro that zips you through animated versions of decades of classic New Yorker covers over smooth jazz, it could present the perfect formula for losing yourself in a long binge.
Point of Honor is a fantastically immersive period piece about The Rhodes, a family of slave owners facing the social upheaval of the Civil War. Set in North Virginia in 1861, what elevates Point of Honor to a gripping drama of House of Cards-level suspense is how fully fleshed out the characters and their dynamics are in the debut episode. John Rhodes is a complex soldier who can masterfully mix disdain for the institution of slavery with the self-righteous duty to protect the South in one snarl. Adrienne Warren’s visceral performance as a slave named Abby is limited in the pilot, but comes close to inspiring tears when she realizes freedom is never really free.
The mark of a good pilot can be measured by the end — or more to the point, how badly the viewer dreads its arrival. Without revealing any spoilers, a dramatic event for a major character paired with the muddied concept of freedom in a tumultuous slave state are enough to entice viewers to stick around for a full season. Point of Honor is a rewarding viewing experience that may require a tissue or two.
Beauty, bullets, and blow.
That isn’t the tagline for the new Entourage movie, but one of the endless crude jokes spouted from Jason Lee’s Grady Paxson, the delinquent son of Wade Paxson, owner of Paxson Firearms. Cocked may be Amazon’s raunchiest show to date, a fast-paced drama (dramedy?) from creators Samuel Baum (Lie To Me) and Sam Shaw (WGN’s Manhattan) that uses the perils of the firearm business to frame a dysfunctional family’s slow reunification. Cocked‘s high replay value lies in the breakneck speed at which director Jordan Vogt-Roberts delivers scenes that will make you hide your face in shock but peek between the spaces of your fingers with inescapable interest. In a 3 minute span in the pilot episode, one of the main characters nearly dies in a burning car and another uses a catheter in a way that would make MacGuyver take a few notes.
The acting is hit or miss with True Blood‘s Sam Trammell delivering a serviceable, if slightly forgettable, portrayal of estranged son Richard Paxson who is charged with saving the dying family business he loathes. But even in his tepid performance there are some astute observations on how to market a product meant to instill fear, and the practicality of his first marketing idea on the show hints that Cocked may have a bit more pragmatism than it lets on. Cocked has enough Wolf of Wall Street debauchery to sustain interest, but it may not lend itself to a long binge session if it makes the cut.
Amazon Studios has greenlit five series in every pilot season except the third, so do not be surprised when you see these five series in your Prime Instant Video queue in the near future. All of these pilots can be streamed at Amazon Pilot Season.