I pay 79.99 a year for Amazon Prime and for that I get the expected thousands of movie titles and TV shows, and these days I also get to audition five would-be series (there are five more for kids) that are in the broad sense, like what you see on pay services. That puts them pretty much into the same category as series on HBO and Netflix, but those places don’t give me a vote, and Amazon does.
I don’t know what I think about voting, frankly. Shouldn’t Amazon Prime know what it’s doing? If I make a reservation at an expensive restaurant, I’m not handed a forkful of food and then asked if the chef is on the right track.
We (well, at least, I) expect that before something gets national exposure, a bunch of bright people have decided it’s worthy. Obviously, this is a flaw in my own thinking. For years, networks have presented new seasons chock full of new shows and while some of them fail because they face tough competition, most of them fail because they stink. And these shows, almost all of them, have been researched so intensely it would seem impossible they could be that bad.
On the plus side, as a viewer, I haven’t paid $79.99 to watch these network-fed lab rats die.
The five new shows from Amazon Prime seem be saving some money on research, and ending up at the same place. Of five new shows—some or all of which continue on to be made into full-blown Amazon series—only one is clearly worth it (“Transparent”), and only one is clearly not (“The Rebels”), and three others—“Bosch,” “The After” and “Mozart in the Jungle” -- end up in the great meh bin. (I bet the voting ends up that way too, except “The After” is from “X-Files” creator Chris Carter and has a sci-fi/doomsday premise and fatalists seem to be a solid TV niche these days. Click here for thumbnails of these shows.)
It’s a little unfair to say that I’m actually paying money to see these experimental shows, because you and I can access them for free, but only paying members get to vote. But I do feel a little bit like a fan of an expansion team who has high hopes for the future but has the nagging fear that a lot of the young prospects don’t have that much upside. Should I renew my season ticket? Does this franchise really know what it's doing?
When Amazon tried this once before, it started with eight pilots and ended up producing two—“Alpha House,” starring John Goodman and produced by Garry Trudeau and Jonathan Alter which may be one of the best of the pay-service shows out there , and “Betas,” which is not one of the better anythings.
But better Amazon went all-in on some projects than half-heartedly into some/a couple of them. This seems to be the approach so far for Netflix, which famously gave us a whole season of “House of Cards” (and now a second one) all at once, and that series has become a signature for that place. Personally, I don’t think it’s so hot that I could have binged an entire season’s worth in one or two sittings, but it’s worthwhile. It’s not nothing.
When Amazon presents five series candidates to its viewers/subscribers, it’s not just suggesting you can take it or leave it, but actually inviting you to do so. It seems democratic—even interactive!—but to me it comes off as timid and a little dangerous for a pay online service. I had an editor once who was firmly opposed to interrogatory headlines because, he reasoned, people bought newspapers to get answers, not to be asked more questions. That’s what I think when companies, like Amazon, ask me to decide what they should do.
Umm. What do you think?