On Amazon, original shows' fates rest in viewers' hands

In its first foray into original online programming, Amazon — yes, that Amazon — is letting viewers have the say

Chicago TribuneMay 9, 2013 

In Amazon's Alpha House, John Goodman plays a Republican senator from North Carolina who shares a house in Washington with three GOP colleagues and, apparently, a dog.

AMAZON STUDIOS

Not content just to sell us books, lawn implements, baseball bats, printers and car floor mats, Amazon is trying to join cable, broadcast and Netflix in providing America with original, TV-like series.

Under the Amazon Originals label, eight adult comedy pilots (and six kids' shows) are up in the mega Web store's Instant Video area, awaiting viewers' reactions. The most viewed and best liked, Amazon says, will go to series, just like at a real TV network.

But this is different because Amazon is giving the say to those who seek out the shows.

The new model — which includes not just Amazon and Netflix but YouTube, Hulu Plus, Funny or Die and many, many more — creates a nonstop video-on-demand world that, sooner or later, is going to threaten the ecosystem of cable channels and networks.

Amazon's idea might be the most on-demand yet. Enough of you demand it, you get the show.

The Amazon comedies include a surprisingly affecting lampoon of Republican senators from Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, a faithful-ish (minus the stars) series remake of the big-screen hit Zombieland and the best TV news parody yet from humor publication The Onion.

Cameos come from Bill Murray, Moby, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, and the stars include Bebe Neuwirth, John Goodman, Jeffrey Tambor and Clark Johnson.

Here are the best of the new adult series from Amazon, in review.

BEST IN SHOW

Alpha House: Garry Trudeau, smartly, takes a Washington scenario we've all heard about — legislators rooming together to save cash — and spins a skewed, casually corrupt, buddies-of-convenience comedy out of it. Liberals might enjoy this because Trudeau pulls no punches in mocking the GOP. One senator laughs at the rule that his campaign can't coordinate with his super PAC. One accepts the Say No to Sodomy Award from the Council for Normal Marriage. The roomies keep a candy dish full of American flag lapel pins.

The writing sometimes stumbles, but there's a level of realistic detail here that HBO's Veep, which has great small moments and misses the mark on some of the bigger ones, could use more of. What really makes the pilot episode work is that, while their party might be drawn in caricature, none of the four men is. You root for the veteran Pennsylvania senator played by Clark Johnson (Homicide: Life on the Street), even when you learn he's facing an indictment. You root for John Goodman's Gil John Biggs, R-N.C., a former college coach coasting, in Falstaffian manner, through his D.C. life.

Those Who Can't: The plot sounds, frankly, awful: Three buddies try to teach at a high school despite being less mature than their students. High-jinks ensue. But the show from the Denver comedy trio Grawlix slyly subverts its own formula, at once being and sending up this kind of show. In that way it's the Amazon pilot that seems the most like a Web series: devil-may-care, supremely arch and often surprisingly funny.

Adam Cayton-Holland, Ben Roy and Andrew Orvedahl teach Spanish, history and gym. Cayton-Holland insisting that a classroom full of native speakers of Mexican descent learn Spanish-from-Spain is very funny. Incidental characters — the touchy-feely principal, the skeptical librarian/love object — are as sharply drawn as the principals. When the show goes over the top, it manages not to fall off.

PRETTY GOOD

Onion News Empire: The Chicago-based humor conglomerate tries another series set in a newsroom.

It's mostly good, imagining Onion News Network as a fully realized world, with a fading anchor (Jeffrey Tambor), a top executive who keeps a pet falcon and earnest young producers.

The jokes are unrelenting, and they range from terrific (sleeper cell members undercover in America have become too fat to fit into their suicide vests; McDonald's has the Veal Meal Deal) to the ridiculous (the network kidnaps a little girl and keeps her around the office to give itself a story it can dominate).

Dark Minions: Cocky series, this one. A note at the outset promises that the half-done animation will be completed if it goes to series. That's not such a long shot. It's the better of two adult animation efforts, and adult animation remains popular. It's likable, even when you're looking at rudimentary drawings.

Two stoners sign up to work for the intergalactic conglomerate that has taken over the galaxy, while various rebel groups try to fight back. Co-written by Kevin Sussman and John Ross Bowie, Big Bang Theory co-stars, it's all pretty laid-back and amiable, with nothing in particular to recommend against it.

Zombieland: Getting into the zombie game is probably never a dumb move, unless, you know, it's a game of Twister. And if you liked the 2009 movie about a group of survivors thrown together and trying to reconnect with others, you'll like this one, too.

There's no Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone or Jesse Eisenberg, but the stand-ins do a fine job. And the show, from the writers of the movie, maintains a light tone amid the gore, with, for instance, rules for survival in Zombieland being typed on the screen.

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