"What Amazon Originals Say About How Amazon Thinks It Can Beat Broadcast Television"
As Netflix has launched its big original series House of Cards and Hemlock Grove over the past few months, their choices of genres and styles has indicated a great deal about what that company thinks is worth emulating on broadcast television. House of Cards is a clear attempt to enter the anti-hero genre that’s done so well for networks like HBO, while Hemlock Grove is a nod to the emergence of horror on television, mostly thanks to FX’s wildly inventive American Horror Story.
But when Amazon put out eight original comedy pilots last week as part of a process by which viewership and viewer reviews will help the company decide which projects to turn into full-fledged shows, their choice of material actually suggested more about the holes that Amazon sees in the television ecosystem and is trying to fill. The eight pilots currently under consideration have a great deal in common, and for good and for ill, they do differ with broadcast television in ways ranging from use of language to genre. Given that Netflix is ramping up its original content offerings more slowly, it may take some time for that company to develop a brand that’s anything like HBO’s or CBS’s. But Amazon’s selections give us a much clearer sense of who Amazon thinks its core consumers are, and what kind of identity Amazon wants its original content to have. Here are four throughlines that were most striking:
1. “Adult” content: All of Amazon’s originals come with warnings about adult language and content. And all of them make use of the leeway apparently granted them by the warning, from the cussing Congressmen who live together in a Capitol Hill townhouse on Garry Trudeau’s Alpha House, to Moby telling an app developer in Silicon Valley start-up comedy Betas “You ever fuck an octopus? I fucked an octopus. It’s why I’m a vegan now,” to Zombieland’s introduction of a character who explains that her name is “Regina. Kind of like vagina, but with an R,” and then counts how many times another character can’t resist joking about it. It’s no question that the show that uses its license to be naughty most judiciously, musical web journalism intern sitcom Browsers, gets the most mileage out of it in a number in which Bebe Neuwirth, playing a riff on Arianna Huffington, explains in song that ” I’m smart but I’m hardly a genius / And I can’t say I’m good with a buck / But throughout my career / I’ve made perfectly clear / I’m someone with whom not to fuck.”
But permission to use the F-word is not the same thing as having genuinely grown-up ideas, or using explicit content to get at the reality of adult experience. And the ability to swear and to be sexual and somewhat gross on television is hardly new. FX has made use of its ability to go there so successfully in shows like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and The League that it’s spinning off a second network so it has more room to develop and to air original comedies and dramas. Nothing in Amazon’s pilots is nearly as explicit as the sex scene in the first episode of Girls. If Amazon wants to beat its competitors by expanding the realm of what its characters can say and do, it’s not enough to let them cuss. The company’s going to think about what its shows do with the leeway it’s granting them, and what ideas and experiences aren’t making it onto other networks.
2. Workplace dramas: With the exception of Zombieland, all of Amazon’s original pilots are set in workplaces, however unconventional. Alpha Dogs is about Congress. Betas is set at a start-up firm. Browsers and Onion News Empire are both about journalists. Dark Minions is a funny riff on space opera that focuses on low-wage workers in an intergalactic conglomerate. The heroines of Supanatural fight evil while working low-wage jobs at the mall. And Those Who Can’t is about a group of embittered high school teachers who are failing to reach their students.
As The Office heads off the air, it makes sense that anyone developing comedies right now might want to try to capture its viewers. But it’s still striking that the shows are so uniformly set in workplaces, and that there’s not a family comedy, a high school or college show, or a hangout sitcom in the bunch. Traditional networks are still trying to make the next Friends, even as shows like Happy Endings have floundered. And Modern Family may not be as huge as it once was, but it’s still a mainstay for ABC. So what’s with the dominant workplace schtick? Is it that Amazon thought it would be easier to deal with theoretically adult themes in office settings than in a family one? Was a hangout theme too loose and not quirky enough, even given the example set by Community? Or are our jobs supposed to be the dominant sources of our identities?
3. Genre shows: One thing I’m glad to see in the mix is two genre shows, both of them animated, given how difficult it’s been for networks to get similar programming the ground successfully. Amazon seems to have learned the lessons of Comedy Central’s now-cancelled Ugly Americans, which mashed up alien invasions and INS to often-strong effect. And it’s possible the company just knows its audience: the kind of people who would be interested in nerdy science fiction or fantasy are also the kind of folks who are likely to be first adopters, and to be seeking out web content. Neither of the company’s genre shows are perfect yet—though I will say, utter duds like Betas and Those Who Can’t aside, Amazon’s pilots showed as much promise as a lot of the first episodes networks send out to television critics—but they both show potential.
In Dark Minions, a voiceover explains, “Two regular guys, Mel and Andy, lost their jobs, and had to take temp work aboard the Galactic Conglomerate Spaceport, even though they really didn’t like the GC’s politics and hated the work environment. But you know what? Mel has alimony, and Andy doesn’t have a college degree, so maybe go easy on the judgement.” The way the show treats the problem of, say, how a stoner gets his supply in a corporate space environment, or what happens to a tyrannical boss gets to carry out his whims armed with weapons of mass destruction, is relatively breezy and fun. If the show moves forward, I’ll be curious to see what the upgraded animation on it looks like.
Supanatural, one of the Amazon originals that made me laugh hardest, has its own rough edges, and a concept that’s tricky to walk without falling into stereotype: it’s half blaxploitation, half Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Its two main characters are cousins, a mall cop and a salesgirl, who in between trying to upsell lotion and deal with the normal complaints of shoppers also do things like track down evil crystal skulls for the Vatican, which then stiffs them on the $3,500 fee they were promised. Watching an ancient artifact of evil tool around a palace of American consumerism, getting its powers activated because “Of course ‘Junk Dick’”—a popular song— “sampled an ancient activation melody. That is so derivative,” and opening up hellmouths in sporting good stores is looney and delightful.
4. Musicals about the perils of working for Arianna Huffington: With the possible exceptions of Onion News Empire and Zombieland, which are based on established brands, all of Amazon’s original offerings are strikingly niche. I adored Browsers, said musical, but I don’t know how many people are going to watch an Arianna Huffington satire utter a line like “I was adrift on the tides of existence. One day, I was laying out tanning on the beach in the Cypriot village of Gialousa. Have you been? It’s a little overrated,” and fall out over it. Even Alpha House, the political show from Doonesbury creator Trudeau, seems most geared to people who are interested in his particular sense of humor and worldview.
Amazon has a lot of leeway here, probably more than any of its other competitors like Netflix and Hulu, since it seems to be the strikingly unusual company with permission to lose money for as long as it takes to corner market share. But given that it’s unlikely to completely take over the narrative video content market, you’d think there might be at least one show in the mix that’s an attempt to garner a mass audience, the kind of people Amazon would like to convert into Prime account users, or at least get used to using Instant Video as a service so they’ll be willing to pay up, one way or another, once Amazon starts spending money on developing some of these pilots into real shows.