Let's face it: Amazon -- the company that brings you Irish Spring body wash via drone -- is a serious player in the original-programming game. And with a bunch of new shows coming out this fall, it's in a prime position to further push ahead in the quest to dominate every aspect of your life, until all of us are merely living in the nicer sections of its giant storage facilities.
Like my HBO, Netflix, and FX rankings, I watched at least three or more episodes of every single original show currently available on Amazon, not counting documentary series (apologies to The New Yorker Presents and All or Nothing: A Season with the Arizona Cardinals), British imports (sorry, Catastrophe), or children's shows. Then I ranked them based on plotlines, narrative structure, characters, dialogue, appearances by cats with guns, and my old-fashioned biases and tastes. And check back this fall: once Amazon unleashes its next big slate of original programming, I'll be updating this list.
9. Alpha House
Remember that show The Weakest Link? Well, I can easily imagine host Anne Robinson looking at Amazon's robust slate of TV, getting to Alpha House, and, with a look of disdain, using her signature phrase to describe it. I could get into the deeper reasons -- the cookie-cutter cast of Republican characters as imagined by non-Republican screenwriters, the low stakes, the annoying and repeated jokes about one of them secretly being gay (BUT ALSO A REPUBLICAN!) -- but it's easier to just call this the senatorial version of a third-rate Veep knockoff and move on.
Perhaps I would've thought this show was fresh and novel if I'd watched it when it first came out in 2014, because it was one of the first TV shows to attempt to skewer Silicon Valley culture. But, unfortunately for Betas, Mike Judge decided to make Silicon Valley on HBO, and that show kicks the ever-living shit out of this one in terms of accuracy, hilarity, and guest inclusions of Emily Chang from Bloomberg.
I could get into the individual problems with Betas -- its crappy second-fiddlers (especially Mitchell, who sounds like he was written by a Magic 8-Ball spitting out tech phrases and memes) and the fact that the app they're pushing sounds horrible and gives them no credibility -- but it may just be easier to say that Betas feels like the Friendster of shows about tech culture: kind of good when you have nothing to compare it to, then obsolete as soon as you do.
7. Hand of God
Erykah Badu is in this show! That's the good news. Ron Perlman is naked in the pilot! That's the BETTER news. The bad news? The show is not very good. Now, the fact that the show isn’t very good is somewhat confusing, because it's well-acted (Perlman is pretty fantastic as a born-again judge in crisis) and has a somewhat interesting mystery plotline, and can occasionally be funny. But it’s like the opposite of Captain Planet: when all of these elements combine powers, nothing fantastic happens, and the fact that I sat through 10 episodes to discover that might be the worst news of all.
Tell me if you've heard this story before: an ex-military workaholic loner cop has a low, gravelly voice, a weird name, and an unconventional approach to rules. His younger partner has a family, just put an offer in on a house, and tries to play it straight. An internal affairs guy wants to bury him and is unafraid of long, sustained eye contact. A new, pretty girl cop knows his reputation (bad boy!) and serves as a straw person to explain plot points for viewers, and maybe he can do some sex with her.
The show hits on all of the conventions of police detective dramas, and hits them hard (including having a handful of The Wire alums in its rotation), so you kind of want to dislike it. Yet the plot is good and quick, and makes you want to watch the next episode. It's essentially a summer beach read TV show, for better or worse.
5. Mad Dogs
I try to go into these shows knowing as little as possible, and going into Mad Dogs, I knew nothing. So I kind of just assumed it was about a bunch of middle-aged men going to Belize and getting into a Very Bad Things-type scenario. And in some ways, I was right. But in many ways, I was very wrong.
The friend they're going to visit is played by Billy Zane, and he is basically a Chubbies commercial mixed with an unfunny Comedy Central roast, all short shorts and machismo to his friends' long cargo shorts and dad worries. Zane goes around lighting emotional and sometimes real fires and seeing if his friends can put them out, UNTIL SOMETHING HAPPENS INVOLVING A CAT, WHICH I CAN'T GET INTO.
The rest of the show is a touch implausible (granted, shows should be a touch implausible) as these guys keep getting into deeper and deeper shit, and all of the baggage they've been holding and the feelings they have about each other all come out as stress builds. Sometimes you actually kind of feel like they're reacting the way you might react if you just happened to witness CAT [REDACTED] with all of your buddies from college, 20 years after the fact. Though it lags in the middle and is honestly quite stressful to watch, Mad Dogs surprised me in all sorts of good ways and became the show I couldn't stop watching, nightmares and all.
4. Red Oaks
There is something great and honorable about being a low-key show. Red Oaks -- with its '80s country-club plotline -- felt at first like some sort of Wet Hot American Summer-Caddyshack crossover, and I thought that it might get too caught up in trying to be ridiculous. But the show's scope seems much smaller than that. It doesn't try to blunt you in the face with violence or cruel humor or shock you; it just wants to tell a pretty funny story about a boy named David working as the assistant tennis pro at a Jersey country club during a summer home from college in the '80s.
Ennis Esmer absolutely crushes as the main tennis pro, and you get underrated performances from Josh Meyers (the more intensely handsome brother of Seth) as the perfect creeper '80s photographer and Dirty Dancing's Jennifer Grey as David's mother. This is the perfect show to watch before bed: amusing and devoid of scary things that will creep into your dream journal.
3. Mozart in the Jungle
As part of the Pitch Perfect-ization of all nerdy activities into underground, cool activities, Mozart in the Jungle, based on Blair Tindall's memoir of the same name, explores the steamy, gossipy underbelly of symphony life (#symphonylyfe?) by tracking an oboist's professional career in NYC.
It begins when an old, crusty maestro steps down for the hot new Spanish maestro (Gael García Bernal), who does hip things like ride bikes and watch homeless women sing, and wants to do new things at the symphony to attract a younger, bigger audience. But old people don't like new things, shouts the old maestro. Anyway, the main character (Lola Kirke) is a young oboist whose roommate may or may not have called her the Jimi Hendrix of the oboe, and she showcases her skill playing newfangled drinking games that combine Spin the Bottle with shots of booze and styles of music to play.
It may sound a little silly, but I assure you that it is entertaining, and contains enough swear words and sexually charged scenarios and humor to propel even a symphony novice like myself through the entire season.
2. The Man in the High Castle
For those of you who expected a male remake of "Rapunzel," I hate to disappoint you, but you're going to have to wait a little longer. The Man in the High Castle expands on Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel, asking: what would happen if the Nazis and their allies won World War II?
About 20 years after the war, America is divided between states overseen by Japan on the West Coast, and by Germany on the East Coast (similar to how Germany was divided in our real-world timeline). In the middle sits a sort of neutral area along the Rockies.
We learn of a resistance movement, and the "man in the high castle" is allegedly an American filmmaker who put together propaganda films depicting America having won the war. Characters connect around his existence, either as members of the resistance looking to pass along his work or as Nazi and Japanese forces looking to snuff it out.
This show is no mere indie act -- it is a big-budget tour de force, and this divided America is chilling to witness on screen. My mother, who happened to be visiting me while I binge-watched the series, quickly got hooked by the fast-moving storyline and complex characters. And if someone who basically only watches Boston Bruins hockey games can so quickly take to a violent, complicated show about a fake past, featuring bounty hunters who dress like cowboys and keep fingers in a CD Logic case, I think you'll have no problem getting on board, too.
Transparent has broken so much ground for Amazon to establish the service as a serious player in the television world (five Emmys for Season 1 alone!), it should have its own contracting firm. In the face of such universal acclaim, the jealous cynic in me wanted to find things wrong with the series, or at the very least avoid watching it.
So I saved it for last in my Amazon Original binge-watch, and I was very ready to give The Man in the High Castle the No. 1 slot. But I couldn't -- Transparent is too good. Too messy and complicated and inescapably real-feeling. In Jill Soloway's series, inspired by her own parent's journey, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) struggles with the infinite challenges of coming out as trans. We see how Maura's transition affects her sprawling family, and watch as the entire clan works through their own sexuality and relationship issues. That the show balances weighty questions with moments of warm-and-fuzzy lightness -- even humor -- is no small accomplishment.
Picking anything but Transparent as the No. 1 show on Amazon now would just be a reaction against its success, and as much as I'd like to be controversial, in the end, it's probably better to be right.
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