Amazon has rolled out five more original series — three comedies and two dramas–in its ongoing effort to become an online television network. The idea is, you watch and vote: Your opinion helps the mega-bookseller decide which ones will be keepers. Compare your opinions with mine.
Hand of God
How admirable of Ron Perlman to finish up filming Sons of Anarchy and then immediately plunge into a new project that casts him in a role that takes him far away from motorcycle-club thuggery. In Hand of God, he plays a haughty, powerful judge who suffers from sometimes-literal delusions of grandeur. Unfortunately, TV watchers have recently seen a character like this — in Kelsey Grammer’s lugubrious, Emmy-winning Boss; there are also elements of the similarly arrogant, hallucinatory legal-world power-grabber that Glenn Close portrayed in Damages. Perlman’s Pernell Harris is at once tediously dour and amazingly unpleasant (cruel to his daughter-in-law and the kind of jerk who has a hooker visit him weekly in his judge’s chambers for a quick fuck). Thank goodness for the presence of Dana Delany, as both his rightfully disgusted wife and as an audience surrogate, here to express our dismay at Pernell’s lordly self-importance. Without Delany, who really deserves better, Hand of God would be pretty unendurable. As it is, it’s a low-voltage downer that needs a boost of narrative energy.
The best of these five shows, Red Oaks takes its title from a New Jersey country club circa 1985. It’s summer, and David (a saucer-eyed Craig Roberts) has a summer job as an assistant tennis pro, which gives him time to be with his curvy girlfriend, an aerobics instructor at the club. As directed by David Gordon Green and produced by Steven Soderbergh, Red Oaks doesn’t overdo the nostalgia other than loading the soundtrack with ’80s pop hits, and David is more fully formed than your average post-Porkys, period-comedy horny kid. The supporting cast is especially good, including Paul Reiser as a wealthy club member prone to amusingly volcanic reactions when he loses on the tennis court, and Richard Kind as David’s father, a poignant sad-sack who feels trapped in a squabbly marriage. This was one of two pilots — the other was Really, see below — that I wanted to see more of immediately as soon as it finished.
Whit Stillman is a proven wizard at making characters marinated in WASP privilege slightly less obnoxious than they can so often be in real life. And it certainly helps The Cosmopolitans that Stillman takes his attitude and his latest batch of eloquent moan-and-groaners far from their usual habitat, Manhattan, and decamps to Paris. There, a cast of haughty naughty boys led by The O.C.’s Adam Brody tries to one-up each other in poker-faced teasing, with regular breaks to ogle women who include Stillman’s career-long cinematic muse, Chloe Sevigny. If artfully stilted dialogue and comedy of manners coincidences are things you find charming, The Cosmopolitans will indeed charm the pants off you; if not, you’ll just be impatient to see who’s going to get into whose pants.
They take their cheerleading very seriously in Austin, Hysteria would like us to believe. In the opening moments of this hour long drama, a group of girls practicing their moves is interrupted when one of them experiences uncontrollable spasms. Her movements are recorded on a smart-phone and posted online. After she’s taken to the hospital, another girl looks at the video a number of times and begins to exhibit the same uncontrollable fits. Clearly, this is a job for Mena Suvari, who stars as some kind of neurological doctor/psychologist, who tries to calm down what quickly turns into a school-wide panic among students and parents, with more victims imminent. If you want a better, less muddled piece of pop culture with similar themes, read Megan Abbott’s terrific current thriller novel The Fever. As it is, Hysteria, created by Shaun Cassidy (American Gothic), is at once too solemn and too melodramatic to be very entertaining.
Is it too crude to say that it looks as though Jay Chandrasekhar created and stars in Really so that Sarah Chalke could give him a blowjob? Because that’s certainly how this sitcom plays. Chandrasekhar and Chalke play a married couple who spend the entire length of the pilot trying to find the time and opportunity for Chalke’s Lori to administer some promised, overdue oral sex to Chandrasekhar’s Jed. Really, like Red Oaks, left me wanted more, but for a different reason: Where Red Oaks has a sure sense of what it is, Really is a tonal mishmash: Is it a potentially clever portrait of a contemporary marriage, or just a cleverly packaged collection of blow-me jokes? For this first half-hour, Really kept me hooked because Jed comes off as a nice guy — loose and funny and charming; it’s no stretch to think Lori, herself a cheerful charmer, would marry this guy. It’s just that Really’s initial half-hour is over-inundated with blow-jobbery. (Yes, I think I’ve invented a new term.) I guess we’ll have to vote for it so Amazon produces more episodes of Really and we can figure out whether the show is good or not.
Ken Tucker is a pop culture critic who has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, and National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.” He tweets at @kentucker