Why Is Amazon Making Pretty Good Shows?

Why Is Amazon Making Pretty Good Shows?

"Bosch" is a pretty good cop show, but it's emblematic of the potential and limitations of Amazon Prime as it gears up to become an even bigger player in the television game.

I wrote recently about the plight of the pretty good show, and though the subject of that piece, "12 Monkeys," is in a very different genre, the same question applies: Who has the time for "pretty good" when there are so many outstanding, fine or excellent programs around?

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that 10 percent of anything (movies, TV, books) is truly wonderful. There is now 10 times as much scripted TV than there was a decade ago, and last time I checked, there are still only 24 hours in the day (what I wouldn't give for the "12 Monkeys'" time-manipulation device!). The cold, hard mathematical fact is that, based on that conservative 10 percent rule of thumb, there are at least 10 times as many worthwhile shows around than there used to be.

So, while "Bosch" is reasonably good, the four episodes I saw may have been sufficient for me. The best thing about "Bosch," which debuts its first season on Amazon Prime on Friday, is that it gives a starring role to Titus Welliver, a development that is long overdue. For a couple of decades, Welliver has turned in fine work on dozens of shows, most notably "Lost" and "Deadwood," and it's about time his rough-hewn charisma was put in the spotlight.

In truth, part of my reaction to the show was to wonder why Amazon Studios made this program.

There are ways of doing business in TV that are fed by cultural and personal biases, and there are commercial and financial concerns that hamstring many networks, when they're not getting in their own way, that is. Yes, the top tiers of TV have gotten better -- mainly thanks to a remarkable crop of writers, producers and directors who have come up over the last decade or two -- but even now, broadcast and cable networks have a host of legacy partners and behavioral patterns that they unwittingly or wittingly serve. All of those factors, and many others, limit the kind of content they can churn out.

But Amazon and Netflix are sitting on huge piles of cash, they don't need to please advertisers and they don't even bother releasing viewership data. They can do what they want. Why don't they?

Of course, they have, in some ways: "Transparent" and "Orange Is the New Black" are the flagship series for Amazon and Netflix, respectively, and a big part of the reason those shows are successful is because they're about as far from the same-old, same-old as one can get and still be in the the television universe. Going forward, I hope they're not the exceptions to the rule.

Though I don't care for them, I see why Netflix makes "House of Cards" and paid for a fourth season of "Arrested Development," and, though I have profound issues with it, I unfortunately see the logic behind Amazon's decision to commission an unnamed series from Woody Allen. These are predictable alpha moves designed to show the creative community what kind of pull you have with big names. In a status-driven world, these are attention-getting acquisitions.

But beyond the big-dog game-playing, why not be weirder, more experimental and take more chances? Given the success of "Transparent," which tells an unusual story in a distinctive way, why not lean in that direction? Amazon and Netflix should make more stories that can't be found elsewhere, from creators who reflect a diverse and eclectic range of backgrounds and viewpoints. Sometimes they do, granted, but I'm not convinced they realize this ability to tack away from business as usual is their greatest strength.

What Amazon seems to be doing now, too often, is recycling ideas, premises and aesthetics that we've seen many times before.

"Bosch" isn't a bad show, but it's a cop show in a world where programs featuring police or some other arm of law enforcement are everywhere. The urban noir elements of "Bosch" -- the unsettled, rule-breaking personality of the central character, his affair with an underdeveloped female character, a murderer who's too clever by half -- these things aren't hard to find on TV. And though "Bosch" is credible, the episodes I saw weren't at such a fantastic level of execution that I have to see more of it and feel the need to shout from the rooftops about it. Truth be told, if a viewer is in the market for a bloody, thoughtful, atmospheric cat-and-mouse game, "Hannibal" is the undisputed king of that category.

And while two wildly different pilots, "The Man in the High Castle" and "Mad Dogs," show promise, a quick look at a selection of Amazon's other notable shows and pilots (aside from kids' fare, which I haven't seen) paint a rather standard picture:

  • "Alpha House": It didn't make much of an impression, in part because "House of Cards" and "Veep" do this kind of knowing political sendup better.
  • "Hand of God" and "Red Oaks," both of which have gotten series orders: Both pilots seem like throwbacks to the '90s, and I don't necessarily mean that in a good way. I don't need to see more of either.
  • "The Cosmopolitans": I've seen this Whit Stillman movie before, many times. That said, I hope more indie directors (including Stillman) continue to find homes in the TV world, which needs every ounce of disciplined idiosyncrasy it can get.
  • "Point of Honor": Well, if there's an award for most tin-eared, racially insensitive costume drama of all time, this show's certainly a contender for that prize. (Netflix's "Marco Polo" is similarly clunky and culturally dumb; these companies need to find other ways to come at costume dramas or just abandon them altogether.)

Most of those shows simply don't work or don't exhibit a ton of appeal, but there are exceptions. Though it's far too broad and generic at times, I have a soft spot for the classical-music comedy "Mozart in the Jungle," which -- see what I'm getting at here? -- is set in a world one doesn't see much on TV. Like the great Canadian series "Slings and Arrows," it satirizes the excesses of creative types even as it pays tribute to the effort required to hone and express an artistic imperative. "Mozart" is goofy and silly and not consistently good, but it features a tremendous lead performance from Gael García Bernal, who, like Welliver, absolutely deserves a turn in the spotlight.

But whatever its ups and downs, it's fascinating to watch the creative evolution of Amazon, and to wonder if it will live up to its potential as a purveyor of original content. With all its money and resources, it could create the most incredible Wish List of all time, one that is driven more by creative concerns than by monetary considerations. If any other entity had commissioned "Transparent," I'm convinced it would have squeezed out or sanded off all the unruly edges that make the show so fantastic. If nothing else, "Transparent" won Amazon a lot of awards. Will it follow the trail-blazing path of its most successful and buzzed-about program? Or will it continue to do a lot of business as usual?

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