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Amazon streams two new TV pilots one that’s great and one that’s terrible

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Streaming sites original content has been wildly inconsistent, as demonstrated by The Interestings and The Last Tycoon: one is gratifying and the other is empty

Amazon has a very uneven record when it comes to their original programming. Transparent is one of the best shows on television (or whatever it is that were calling Amazon streaming video these days) but its joined by the decidedly average Red Oaks and Mozart in the Jungle (despite its Golden Globe win), and the absolutely horrible Bosch and Hand of God.

The same inconsistency usually applies to Amazons semi-regular pilot season, where a couple of times a year the streaming service and toothpaste vendor releases a bunch of pilots it made to the general public and lets them vote on which ones they would like to turn into original series. (Not that Amazon always listens to the people.) The most recent slate launched on Friday and features two shows that are currently streaming for free on the have-your-dog-food-and-diapers-delivered-the-next-day website. One of the new shows, The Interestings, shows promise and the other, The Last Tycoon, is awful.

Writing partners Lynnie Greene and Richard Levine (veterans of Nip/Tuck, Masters of Sex, and more) adapted The Interestings from a 2013 book by Meg Wolitzer. It focuses on a group of six friends who met at summer camp in the mid-70s and remained close for the next several decades even though a tragic (and so far unexplained event) threatened to rip them apart during those early summers.

The show is constantly shifting in time from the 70s when the characters are teens focusing on their future careers as artists at the Spirit in the Woods summer camp, to the 80s when theyre struggling in New York, to the 90s when theyve all compromised their artistic ideals to some extent and achieved varying degrees of success.

The main focus is Jules (Lauren Ambrose) who wanted to be an actor and comedian but eventually settled for being a therapist. Her best friend is Ash (Mad Mens Jessica Par) who marries scruffy cartoonist Ethan (David Krumholtz). Theyve also remained close with Jonah (Corey Cott), who comes out later in life and has a famous mother. Ashs brother Goodman (Matt Barr) is at the center of the mysterious event and is currently on the lam and living in Iceland.

It takes a little while to figure out exactly who is who and what their relationships are with one another (especially with different actors playing them in their younger years). Once that is sorted out, The Interestings is a sober and slightly depressing look at how the ideals of youth slowly dissolve into the compromises of middle age. Thats not an entirely original premise, but what makes the pilot especially moving is that we see these characters making huge decisions and then immediately see the consequences intentional or otherwise.

The cast is stellar and the shifting timeline isnt nearly as confusing as it could be. I worry a bit about how The Interestings will continue as a series after weve uncovered all of the secrets the group are keeping from one other. At 65 minutes (about 20 minutes longer than commercial TV dramas), the pilot just needs another 40 minutes and it could be a complete movie. Why it should be of ongoing concern will be the biggest thing for the creators to tackle, but since its jammed with interesting characters it shouldnt be a hard challenge. It would be easy to say that The Interestings is interesting, but its more than that. It is truly insightful and gratifying.

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The Last Tycoon: the dialogue falls like bricks. Photograph: Adam Rose/Amazon Prime

The Last Tycoon isnt nearly as satisfying. Its an adaptation of F Scott Fitzgeralds last, unfinished novel, a roman clef about Hollywood, where Fitzgerald was writing screenplays just before his death. Originally developed for HBO with writer/director Billy Ray, the network passed on the project and it ended up with Amazon.

Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer) is the Jewish creative director of a smaller Hollywood studio in the early 30s. He is still grieving from the death of his movie star wife two years earlier. Hes incensed when a Nazi cultural attache shows up and says that if they want to release movies in Germany they all need to meet the Fhrers standards. The Germans kill Stahrs pet project, a biopic about his wife, and studio owner Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer) goes along with it. Stahr gets his revenge by dreaming up a film with Bradys headstrong daughter Cecelia (Lily Collins) and only slightly fending off her advances.

Strangely enough Ray, who wrote such excellent movies as The Hunger Games, Shattered Glass and Captain Phillips, does a much better job as a director than as a writer. The production is absolutely gorgeous, recreating the art deco world of early Hollywood with tender detail and exhibiting some deft and daring camera work that drags the material out of the gutter.

Still, it doesnt get that much further from the gutter than the dirty sidewalk. The dialogue is so clunky it lands like so many bricks out of the actors mouths. Its how pictures get made and theyre all I got. I cant feel anything else, Stahr says summarizing his inner turmoil a little too neatly. Later someone tells him, Everyone who comes close to you pays for it. Whatever happened to show, dont tell?

The symbolism in The Last Tycoon is so blatant that Stahrs movie is literally called The American Dream. Yes, the surface is really shiny but its so empty it will make your brain ache for something more challenging, like one of those find-a-word puzzles on a diner placemat. Bomer, who is always much more attractive as eye-candy than he is skilled as an actor, is sort of perfect for this part in that way, but he doesnt have the skill or charm to save bad material.

What does save this bad material for Amazon is that there is still so much great material on Amazon hiding between Gunther Grass novels and discount Spanx. I cant promise you that The Interestings is good enough that it could make you forget about how bad The Last Tycoon is, but it sure goes a long way.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/jun/17/amazon-debuts-two-pilots-the-interestings-last-tycoon

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