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Amazon’s Highbrow Aspirations

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ever since the Everything Store uploaded its first batch of episodes just over three years ago, Amazon Pilot Season has unfolded sporadically and with mixed results. The gist: Amazon decides which pilots to make, and then viewers leave reviews of the shows the same as they would for a deeply discounted air mattress. The next few months give rise to the transcendent (Transparent), the pleasant (Mozart in the Jungle), or … nothing at all (remember The Cosmopolitans?). The extent to which feedback actually influences Amazon’s eventual pickups is unclear. But the principle of it is as contrary to television’s typical closed-circuit ethos as it is perfectly in line with Amazon’s proud transparency. But how well does transparency translate to prestige?

By Amazon standards, the most recent class of pilots, posted this past Friday, is a small one. There are just two aimed at adults, both of them literary adaptations: The Interestings, from Meg Wolitzer’s 2013 novel, and The Last Tycoon, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel. (There are also six children’s pilots; unlike its streaming competitors, Amazon established a strong base of kids’ shows from the start, many of them excellent.) As adaptations, each delivers the surface-level satisfaction of seeing a beloved text translated to screen — in The Interestings’ case, for the first time, and in The Last Tycoon’s, for the first time in 40 years. As stand-alone shows, though, both fail to deliver much more than that. Instead, they show a preference for user-approved known quantities that’s indicative of both Hollywood as a whole and Amazon in particular, both inside and outside its scripted division.

The Interestings, cowritten by TV veterans Lynnie Greene and Richard Levine, follows the titular group of friends from the ’70s arts camp where they met to the mid-’90s, where their youthful aspirations have not, for the most part, panned out as they hoped. Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose fittingly anchors a series clearly aiming for Under’s still-vacant spot as the series of record for grown-up emotions. Unfortunately, the end product is closer to the lightweight, low-stakes dramedy of Casual or Togetherness, and changing the venue from contemporary Los Angeles to a slightly dated New York does nothing to temper the self-absorbed affluence that can make the genre so off-putting. The Interestings is certainly aware of the teenage self-regard required to christen one’s social group … The Interestings, but it doesn’t seem aware of how to turn those teenagers into sympathetic, complex adults.

The Last Tycoon wants to be a work of nostalgia that’s informed without being indulgent. In that respect, it’s an improvement on The Interestings; on the other hand, it’s a less specific, and inevitably more self-congratulatory, take on the Old Hollywood homage than recent entrants into the genre. Matt Bomer brings blue-eyed star power as Monroe Stahr, a Depression-era Hollywood wunderkind spearheading an ambitious slate of movies for his omnibus studio. If that sounds suspiciously similar to Hail, Caesar!, the Coen Brothers’ latest, that’s because they’re working from the same source material: where Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix was inspired by an eponymous MGM fixer, Fitzgerald modeled Stahr after Irving Thalberg, another one of the company’s noted higher-ups. But where Mannix is cheerfully amoral, Stahr is cheaply sentimental, prone to grand speeches about film as public service and weeping over the films of his dead movie star wife. Hollywood loves nothing more than a paean to itself. But to succeed as a series, The Last Tycoon has to surpass its cheap platitudes about the Power of the Movies.

It could be months before we see more episodes of either series, if Amazon orders any at all. Between now and then, there’s plenty of time for the shows to make improvements … or for viewers to decide they’re not worth picking back up, since the rest of the season isn’t simply sitting there. This might be an open pilot season’s ultimate drawback: it puts a show’s early flaws on display, without the promise that better episodes are just a click away.

Amazon Pilot Season is nonetheless fated to survive. That’s because the company is rich enough to have it both ways: Amazon has commissioned series and scripts from the auteurist likes of Jill Soloway, Whit Stillman, and Woody Allen. But in its own twist on the streaming formula, Amazon is also making shows that feel appropriately crowd-sourced: Alpha House comes from a wildly popular satirist, The New Yorker Presents from a wildly popular magazine, and now, both The Interestings and The Last Tycoon from wildly popular books. And with a slate of original series rapidly approaching maturity, Amazon’s even begun to replicate the pipeline internally. As the second Fitzgerald-adjacent pilot in less than a year, after last November’s Z: The Beginning of Everything, it’s easy enough to imagine The Last Tycoon in the “Customers Who Watched This Item Also Watched…” section at the bottom of every page.

Compared to Netflix’s ever-expanding multiplex of #content, this strategy feels both more consistent and more streamlined — and just more data-heavy dystopic Amazon. Which is exactly what Amazon needs to go up against its better-established competitor. It’s an approach that doesn’t yield many creative home runs, but it keeps Amazon’s fine-tuned machine running — and that’s exactly what it’s designed to do.