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Amazon comedy pilots and Netflix's new new series

Amazon's trying a new experiment this week, releasing eight new comedy pilots and letting users vote on which ones are worth continuing as a full series. Here are five of the eight pilots you should take a look at, and a quick review of Netflix's new series Hemlock Grove.

[A quick note: I'm skipping rating Amazon's pilots, since the whole point of the pilot program is to let you watch and decide for yourself if you want more. But you can safely assume that if they're on this list, I think they're worth a watch. And note that to watch, you need to be an Amazon Prime member.]

Alpha House

Amazon, pilot now streaming

Alpha House is certainly the most professional looking pilot in Amazon's lineup. The show was created by Doonesberry cartoonist Garry Trudeau, about a house shared by four Republican senators who are all varying degrees of incompetent. The show's main draw is some serious star-power for a straight-to-Amazon show. John Goodman plays the lead, a South Carolina senator who's suddenly targeted for a serious primary challenge that shakes him out of a comfortably lazy lifestyle. Clark Johnson and Matt Malloy also do solid work, even if they're less well known. But even Goodman's draw is eclipsed by a special guest in the first two minutes, and then by regular brief cameos for the rest of the pilot. Like all Amazon's pilots Alpha House isn't perfect, but it feels like a natural fit for Amazon--a prestige comedy that could be the online retailer's answer to Netflix's House of Cards.

Browsers

Amazon, pilot now streaming

Given the number of really difficult things Browsers is trying to do at the same time, it's a wonder it isn't a total mess. It tries to show the modern realities of journalism on the Internet, taking place as it does at a thinly veiled Huffington Post. It's also trying to talk about the economic realities of Millennials, since it's following new interns in their early twenties. Oh, also, it's a musical, because the first two things aren't hard enough. Sure, it has some problems--it's strange to watch a musical that seems to be better when the music _isn't_ playing--but it manages to reference real websites without seeming woefully out of date (a feat few series accomplish). If it's given time to start firing on all cylinders, it could do some really impressive things.

Zombieland: The Series

Amazon, pilot now streaming

Zombieland: The Series is probably Amazon's most talked-about pilot. Based on the movie starring Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone (but not including any of the original actors) the series follows the movie's four characters as they try to create a makeshift family after the zombie apocalypse. If the series has a problem it's that it veers slightly too close to its source material at times. With four new actors playing the same characters from the film, it occasionally seems like a weird alternate universe retelling of the movie where everybody's going to take two years to reach the same revelations the movie got them to in two hours. That's a shame, because when it isn't trying to remind you of the original Zombieland, the show is pretty great on its own terms, especially in what's probably the strongest opening scene of all Amazon's potential new shows.

Supanatural

Amazon, pilot now streaming

Of all the Amazon pilots, the one that most seems to belong on a regular TV set is Supanatural, which plays like a refugee from Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. That's not an insult--Supanatural has all the hallmarks of a really good Adult Swim show, an animated comedy with an emphasis on adult humor and an absolutely bizarre premise. In Supanatural's case, it follows two women who spend their time off from part-time jobs at the mall to hunt ancient relics and fight supernatural foes. It's a weird show. I feel like I need to stress that again. The formula worked for me, though, and I found myself laughing out loud at it more than any of the other pilots.

Onion News Empire

Amazon, pilot now streaming

After a few years doing online video and a cable show experiment in fake news satirical newspaper, The Onion is branching out into a more narrative direction with Onion News Empire. The show's set in an alternate universe where The Onion is the biggest news conglomerate on the planet, and the Onion News Network is the world's premiere outlet. Jeffrey Tambor of Arrested Development and The Larry Sanders Show is the big name that The Onion has been using to promote the series, but the show itself wisely lets him settle in as more of a b-player--a vain, aging anchor who's plotting to destroy the network's new talent. Instead, the show concentrates on being an aggressive parody of HBO's The Newsroom, with dedicated journalists making inspiring speeches and bold decisions in order to make the news worse and more about empty spectacle. In one of the show's darkest and best recurring bits, The Onion makes its own news by kidnapping adorable children and killing attractive, news-ready young people.

Hemlock Grove

½

Netflix, first season available now

House of Cards was largely a success for Netflix. I had my problems with the show's storyline on occasion but as a showcase for what Netflix's approach is (giving big names the creative freedom to make the season of television they want to make), House of Cards was a huge success. Hemlock Grove, on the other hand, shows the downside to that approach. Giving Eli Roth (director of Hostel and Cabin Fever) free reign to produce a horror show must have _seemed_ like a good idea, but as the first season progresses, the value of reining in a show's creator becomes more and more obvious. The first half of Hemlock Grove is a fairly inoffensive horror/mystery show about supernatural murders in a weird, small town. In the back half of the season, however, the show goes off the rails into a downright disaster of terrible dialogue and pointless gore. Giving creators more latitude in their work is a laudable goal for Netflix to have. In this case however, asking "why?" every once in a while wouldn't have been out of line.


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