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.