[This is a review of I Love Dick, The Tick, and Jean-Claude Van Johnson. There will be SPOILERS.]
After several years, Amazon’s Pilot Season has finally inched closer to becoming the annual tradition the streaming service likely intended it to be. Built largely off the success of Jill Soloway’s award-winning series Transparent, Amazon Video (which desperately needs a new name) made a name for itself as a serious competitor for the likes of Netflix and Hulu, as well as premium channels that have ventured into the on-demand waters with services like HBO Go (or HBO Now, if you prefer) and Showtime Anytime.
But pilot season is different than the usual release of upcoming dramas and comedies doled out by networks on a year-round basis these days. Amazon’s offering comes with a hint of democracy, as the service streams a line-up of pilots with the intention of the viewers themselves voting and reviewing their favorites, which then, presumably, decides which shows-in-waiting will be picked up for a full season and which will not. While the legitimacy of the viewers’ influence is dubious, to say the least, it does afford Amazon an extra incentive to encourage audiences to check out their latest wares and to share their thoughts on them. Essentially, it’s a way to make subscribers feel more a part of the process – it’s like getting to play producer without having to do anything but sit back, watch, and then offer a few notes… okay, so it’s exactly like being a producer.
In previous years, Amazon has offered the likes of Bosch, Red Oaks, The Man in the High Castle, Mad Dogs, Betas, and more. For whatever reason, this year is a little different. Maybe it’s because, in one way or another, the pilots feel like they carry a higher profile. Whether that’s because Amazon Video has had success with everything from Transparent to Mozart in the Jungle to The Man in the High Castle, or if it’s a result of an increased awareness around the brand’s particular (and particularly broad) offerings is hard to say. At any rate, with pilots for the Jill Soloway-directed new series I Love Dick, starring Kathryn Hahn and Kevin Bacon, the reboot of the superhero satire The Tick, and the meta-comedy actioner Jean-Claude Van Johnson starring JCVD himself, Amazon Pilot Season 2016 has its eye set firmly on the power of the half-hour comedy. Let’s find out how each one stacks up:
I Love Dick
Kathryn Hahn is always, ALWAYS the best thing in whatever she’s in. That’s true of everything from Showtime’s lamentable Happyish to this summer’s better-than-you’d-think-it’d-be comedy Bad Moms. It’s also true of her role as Rabbi Raquel Fein in Transparent, where she was possibly the only truly likeable character on a show that, in its first two remarkable seasons, managed to make the audience care about generally self-centered and unlikable people. But when Rabbi Raquel’s relationship with Josh Pfefferman seemingly came to an end in season 2 (spoilers, but you really should have watched the show by now), the question was: Is this the last we’ll see of Hahn in a collaboration-from-heaven with writer-director Jill Soloway? Well, the new pilot I Love Dick, adapted from the 1997 semi-confessional novel of the same by writer and artist Chris Kraus, exists to not only answer that question, but to be highly entertaining as well.
Without a doubt the best pilot in the trio, I Love Dick depicts Hahn as Kraus, who becomes obsessed with Kevin Bacon as the mononymous Dick, a theorist and professor in Marfa, Texas, who rides a horse through town, rolls his own cigarettes, and says things like “I’m post-idea.” Bacon’s Dick is a clever play on the archetypal male character: he’s at once a cowboy and an intellectual – or maybe pseudo-intellectual since the only real conversation he has with Kraus devolves into an interplay that more closely resembles the repugnant practice of negging. Nevertheless, Kraus finds herself infatuated with Dick. The same goes for Kraus’ husband Sylvére, played by Griffin Dunne, who finds his sexual desire for his wife rekindled as she reads a vaguely erotic short story disguised as a letter to Dick.
Soloway directed the pilot, which is all the better for it. Here she brings the same visual flourishes that make Transparent so distinctive and dreamlike at times, turning Kraus’ reading of the aforementioned aphrodisiacal letter into a painterly experience, something more akin to a hazy recollection underlined by a tract of itemized desires. The same is true of how the pilot depicts Bacon, turning Dick into – what else? – an object of obsession both sexual and intellectual, and as framed by Soloway’s lens, an acknowledgment of the female gaze.
Possibly the most high-profile and seemingly audience friendly of the Amazon pilots, The Tick is the third television series to feature Ben Edlund’s nigh-invulnerable blue-suited doofus superhero. The latest incarnation sees British actor Peter Serafinowicz as the titular crime fighter, while his diminutive sidekick Arthur is played by up-and-coming actor Griffin Newman (so many Griffins in this pilot season). For his part, Serafinowicz puts on quite a show, revealing an entirely unexpected gear as an actor as the barely contained contempt for others that typically defines his characters is tossed aside to make room for a huge and delightfully manic performance that sets the tone for the entire series.
Despite the necessary grandiosity of Serafionwicz’ performance, it might be Newman who steals the show, as he quietly turns Arthur’s usual wet blanket-ness into something more fascinatingly mournful – in spite of its obvious allusions to Fight Club or Mr. Robot. This turn plays well as the series seems to be told largely from Arthur’s perspective, positioning him as a young man taking the first steps to coming to terms with the trauma of his father’s death.
The pilot feels like it could have been an hour long, but like Starz’ Ash vs. Evil Dead, the producers made the right choice in going the half-hour route. The shorter runtime allows the jokes to be a little punchier, while still allocating plenty of time for the usual genre fare. Meanwhile, the Tick’s attack on a group of gun-toting villains is what you’d expect from a superhero show, but at the same time it’s also really weird. This is another reason why the series probably works better clocking in at the 30-minute mark: There’s not enough time to get acclimated to The City or its residents – super powered or otherwise – meaning the series succeeds in leaving the viewer wondering just what the hell is going on. Given how visible the pilot made Arthur’s “tick” when in the presence of the Tick, having shorter episodic installments, interspersed with flashbacks, ephemera of now-dead superheroes, and the elongating shadows of a conspiracy involving the supposed death of Jackie Earle Haley‘s the Terror, the series could conceivably stretch its central mystery and get more from it.
Of all the pilots, The Tick is the one that played most like a typical television pilot – which is understandable considering the various introductions and backstories that had to be established – which leaves more questions about its future as a series. Still, terrific performances from Serafinowicz and Newman make it easy to say, “yes” to this one.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson
Even with a series about a man dressed as a blue tick and one with a dirty double entendre as its title, Jean-Claude Van Johnson takes the prize as the weirdest Amazon pilot. The improbably engaging series is another in a string of self-aware roles that have marked the second act of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s career. The Muscles from Brussels first played a version of himself in the 2008 action film JCVD and later he appeared in a Volvo commercial doing the splits on two moving trucks.
But whereas JCVD was meta in an introspective kind of way, Jean-Claude Van Johnson uses the character of Jean-Claude Van Damme to poke fun at action genre tropes while still participating in them. The series’ basic premise asks: What if the ’80s and ’90s action vehicles that made Jean-Claude Van Damme a household name were actually cover for a black ops operative run in part by his agent Jean (Phylicia Rashad), and can a now-aging action star get back into the game after being away for so long?
In a sense, the series is as overtly about fading celebrity and relevance as JCVD, but here it’s played more for laughs than anything else. Van Damme’s willingness to be unselfconscious in the role – failing to properly do the splits, being confused for Nicolas Cage by a hipster waiter, picking up his copy of Variety on a Segway – helps as it offers a relatable fragility to an actor who, for the better part of two decades, was presented in films as utterly indestructible. The revelation of an older, slower, less agile Van Damme helps ground the series, even as it ventures into the sort of outlandishness that comprised the plots of the movies he once headlined.
While the pilot is quite charming and often very funny, the show does feel limited by its own premise in that the joke might wear thin after a few episodes. It’s a concern that could be assuaged by some smart writing that continues its send up of the action genre, but also probes deeper into the world of celebrity, finding meaning in second chances, and the awareness that an actor’s onscreen persona has become the expectation of his real life.
The pilots for I Love Dick, The Tick, and Jean-Claude Van Johnson are currently available on Amazon Video.
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