Wednesday Wonders: Why more isn’t necessarily better

Okay, lockdown has certainly given me more time to take advantage of my Amazon Prime subscription, but for the most part I’ve found myself binging older shows that I didn’t catch the whole way through the first time, like 30 Rock, or deep diving in order to study those proto-shows that led to what we’re familiar with now, like SNL’s dad, Laugh-In.

Yes, “Dad.” SNL is that old now. Laugh-In ran from 1968 to 1973. SNL premiered on October 11, 1975. So, hell, not even Dad. Big brother.

I’d avoided Amazon Originals for the most part because there are just so many of them, and the one I’d attempted previously, The Man in the High Castle, left me cold at the end of the first episode because I’m a huge fan of the book it’s based on, and they basically blew through that entire story in the pilot, leaving them nowhere to go.

But isolation finally made me dip my toe into the water recently and I have to say… more is not better. For the most part, I’ve been very disappointed with what I’ve seen. Granted, it’s only a small sample of what they’ve done, and there are a couple of shows I still look forward to testing (Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), but… I’m seeing a lot of lazy and formulaic writing, and plot twists that are obvious from ten miles off, especially in their science fiction offerings.

On top of that, there seems to be an aesthetic of “let’s go there” that makes me reply “let’s not.”

So… how do you create an Amazon Original? Here’s the apparent formula for your pilot episode, depending on your genre:

An anthology series

An anthology series is one in which either each episode of a season involves different stories and characters (think Twilight Zone) or each season of a series takes place in different times and locations, although often with a repertory cast of the same actors (think American Horror Story).

For Amazon, their approach to anthologies is the former, with each episode a stand-alone, and the process is this:

  1. First, acquire an intellectual property (IP) based on something you can exploit, especially if it’s popular on the internet and/or has been memed to death.
  2. Figure out everything that made that work popular and interesting and… dump it. Especially ignore the demographic that made it popular.
  3. Next, create a pilot episode that really doesn’t include anything from the IP, but which just nods to it, and which is vague and ambiguous, preferably with mind-bending twists. Make sure that people who’ve ever written will be twelve steps ahead of you as every set-up screams like a siren, while everyone who hasn’t written will be confused.
  4. At the end, pay off what the writers expected and blow muggles’ minds. Then completely undercut it by tossing in an unearned and unrealistic twist that makes no sense. Repeat for ten episodes.

An Original series

Start with interesting idea, either adapted IP, or a completely new concept. Great. Now follow these steps:

  1. Make the pilot overlong, then start with a character who is much more interesting than your lead, but who isn’t your lead. For bonus points, make sure that this not lead character is a person of color and/or a woman, then make the real lead a white guy.
  2. Opening scene options: Generally, senseless and over-the-top violence, although confusing and muddled WTF is also acceptable.
  3. Be sure to show off your SFX budget as soon as possible, even if it adds nothing, but don’t get lazy. If you start your effects shot with future design, don’t give it up half-way through. People do notice.
  4. Don’t forget the sex scene, usually involving protagonist and SO, although Amazon Original sex seems to be of the “implied naked couple half covered by a sheet (and tits covered by an arm) while they lie on their sides facing each other to do some sort of impossible to get off hump while both having spectacular orgasms at the same time, regardless of the gender combo. (Exception: zero-G.)
  5. At every turn, telegraph the hell out of shit. Okay, you think you aren’t and you’re being clever, and maybe non-creative viewers don’t get it, but FFS… out of all the shows I’m going to mention below, there are only two exceptions in which I didn’t figure out the entire series plotline by the end of the first act of the pilot. One of those was because the writing was just too damn good. The other was because the writing was just so confused and muddled.
  6. Did I mention the over-the-top SFX violence or gore? If you’re ambitious, go for twice. And don’t fail to shoot scenes in ways that will make your audience ask, “Did we really need to fucking see this?”

You know, if Pier Paolo Pasolini were still alive, he would probably be the most successful producer and creator on Amazon Prime.

But let’s look at my hot takes of some Prime Originals I have tried to sit through, and whether I did or didn’t get past the pilot, and why. (Hint: I really only got past the pilot twice.)

1.   The Boys

This was a clever attempt at deconstructing the super-hero world from a very logical point of view: What about all of the innocent people who are inadvertently injured, killed, or have their lives destroyed when the “supers” do battle all across their hometown?

Deconstructing super-heroes has been a thing since the 1980s, when graphic novels reinvigorated comic books and brought them into the modern age. This was when the idea of dark and gritty versions of DC heroes like Batman and Superman were created. It was also the era when Watchman took the graphic novel world by storm by further deconstructing the deconstruction, and imagining “masked vigilantes” in the context of the real world, beginning at the same time as the Golden Age of comics had, in the 1930s.

A sadly forgotten reimaging of superheroes as just regular people is the 1999 comedy film Mystery Men, which featured an outstanding cast as costumed heroes who maybe weren’t the best at doing what they did, but they tried.

So… The Boys follows in those footsteps, but again doesn’t really give us any characters to root for because the team of guys who decides to go vigilante against the supers aren’t all that likeable, and their targets come off as such heavy-handed and obvious (but different enough to not violate IP rules) stand-ins for MCU characters, that they’re impossible to care for either.

It’s kind of interesting, because The Boys is sort of the fantasyland version of Hunters, see below.

2.  The Expanse

I thought I liked this one when I watched the first episode, but when I came around to watching the second, I realized that nothing from the pilot had really stuck with me, and that’s not a good sign if the return to the well is within less than a week. I am normally a huge science fiction fan, especially if it’s hard sci-fi, meaning it actually follows the rules of physics and such. And, while this one did, nothing else stuck. Your mileage may vary.

3.  Good Omens

This one is proof that if you start off with good IP and trust the people adapting it, you’ll get gold. It also helps that the two leads, David Tennant and Michael Sheen as demon Crowley and angel Aziraphale have such amazing chemistry together that it sets the tone for and makes the series. (And many fans have shipped the two into TVs first ever asexual relationship.)

Of course, since it opens with the first 6000 years of human history as the pair stands on the wall of the Garden of Eden and then weaves in and out to the present, how could it go wrong? Bonus points: It’s narrated by god, voiced by Frances McDormand. And it didn’t hurt that the BBC co-produced and the scripts were written by one of the original co-authors of the book, Neil Gaiman.

This was one I binged, and one that Amazon Originals absolutely got right.

4.   Hunters

Okay, who doesn’t love a good “Let’s kill us some fugitive Nazis” story, right? Especially a period piece set in the 1970s. Except that it goes a bit way over the top in the opening scene, which stretches all plausibility. Then gets more implausible when Al Pacino, noted Italian-American actor, shows up as a Jewish Nazi hunter. What, they couldn’t find any Jewish actors in Hollywood. Nu? And then comes the ultimate “Why the fuck did they shoot it like this?” scene that just put me right off of the whole damn thing.

5.   Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams

I’m a huge fan of Philip K. Dick’s work, and I may yet go back to this one, because I was engaged by the pilot, which was the quintessential Dickian adventure of “guess which one is the real world.” Both worlds involve a cop — one a white lesbian in a technologically advanced future world, and the other a black man in a much closer to now, but with some advanced touches world.

Both of them suffer extreme guilt over a decision that led to the deaths of fellow cops, and each of them is given the option to treat their PTSD via a high-tech “drug.” In the future, it’s a small illuminated disk that sticks on the skin. In the not-as-future, it’s a black plastic headset akin to the skeleton of a bicycle helmet.

We soon learn that, via these devices, these two cops are the same person in two different settings, and from there it becomes a game of “spot the real world.” The hidden clues actually argue either way, and half of the fun is finding them, since set design and art direction play a large part. My only quibble, at first, was that the deck was heavily stacked toward option 1 by the end and, indeed, we were told that this was the artificial world — only to have a rug-yank immediately thereafter. In retrospect, it kind of makes sense, but is going to take a second look.

The only reason I haven’t continued yet with this one is that it’s a bit dark for current events.

6.   Tales from the Loop

Pick a target demographic that doesn’t match the source and aim for them. For example, take a dark and satirical graphic novel about a virus that infects machines and turns them into sentient but dying creatures, leading to the devastation of human society, totally misunderstand what makes Stranger Things work (nostalgia, not kids) and then create a confused mess that’s not relatable to either group.

I did attempt two episodes of this one, but only made it about ten minutes into the second. What made the source material work — the beautiful and detailed paintings — doesn’t translate into a live-action series if you fail to add the action. Tales is surprisingly static and uninvolving, and that’s a shame. I have less than zero interest in watching some pre-pubescent child wander through an endless, deserted, monochrome landscape waiting for something to happen.

7.   Upload

The jury is still out on this one, although I have made it through two episodes and have stayed engaged. Briefly, it’s the story of a world where the afterlife has been digitized, and people have the option of having their consciousness uploaded to an avatar that will live forever in an ultimate VR heaven.

If they have enough money — and that includes paying for DLC once they’re there — then they can go to the fancy, lavish lakeside heaven. If not… well, we haven’t seen the budget version yet.

The one little drawback to the upload process, though, is that it leaves behind a headless corpse that’s frozen just in case science ever figures out how to download that information back in to reanimate the bodies.

And don’t worry about staying in touch with loved ones who’ve been uploaded. They’re only a phone call away. Talk about taking the concept of heaven being in the cloud(s) to its ultimate high tech conclusion.

The positives for this one are that the leads are really, really likeable and relatable, and the world-building has been well thought out — both on the afterlife and real life sides. (In-show clues indicate that the story probably begins in 2033.)

For me, the only drawback is that there were two really huge clues in the first episode — one a throwaway line and the other a button on the last act — that telegraphed the entire plotline for the season, if not the series, to me. I may or may not be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

Still, this one is an Amazon Original that actually managed to get it right, and that’s rare — and it got me going along through the third episode, so I think that this one is a keeper, even if I think I’ve figured out the first season arc already.

Update: I made it to the end of season one and enjoyed the whole thing — and it also managed to throw a couple of surprises at me. Now, it’s just the interminable wait until the make season two!

What Amazon Originals have you hooked? Which ones didn’t do it for you? Tell us in the comments!

Image source:  A work of the U.S. federal government, so public domain in the United States.

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