What you deserve to watch:
This week, Jill Solloway changed the way I write.
Her new show, I Love Dick, features a narrator with a nearly hip-hop name of Chris Kraus, and the show punctuates its dreamy angst by hitting us with the words she’s writing, displayed on our screens as giant, milkshake-thick white letters against a tomato-soup scarlet backdrop. Based on an epistolary novel famous for inventing the female gaze, Solloway’s new show is a deftly nuanced take on how sexual fantasy leads us to artistic discovery, and as it unfolds—with the marvellous Kathryn Hahn finding herself hopelessly fixated with a dismissive, cowboy-boot wearing Kevin Bacon—we find ourselves transfixed by her point of view. And by her hunger.
It looks superlative, and is my pick from the three promising pilot episodes released a few days ago on Amazon.com, in what should be an annual audience poll but—given their roster of ace creators—is basically the content giant’s way of showing off its bench strength. Every year now, well before the shows are out, the first episodes are released online so we can vote for them and so our appetites remain whetted. The voting appears irrelevant, since I reckon all three will be picked up—given that Solloway gives Amazon its sublime prizehorse Transparent, and the other two are a superhero show and a show starring Jean Claude Van Damme as a secret agent.
The Tick features the delightful Peter Serafinowicz as the big blue bug Patrick Warburton once made immortal, and he’s in top form alongside Griffin Newman, a soft young man who looks uncannily like a hapless young Michael Stuhlbarg, even if the show is trying too hard to set up its superhero premise and conflicts. Similarly in Jean Claude Van Johnson, the enviably self-aware Van Damme lampoons his image with gracious self-deprecation—old-school fight sequences where the hero would fight one villain at a time are dismissed by a new director as unrealistic—and while it is indeed amusing to see the once flawless Van Damme now resembling Mathieu Amalric and make Timecop jokes, the fact remains that the pilot gives away too much, especially considering JCVD fans have already watched the smart, meta JCVD. I’ll give the show a shot, but I keep wondering just how far they can stretch the same rusty actor/rusty spy gag.
Pilot episodes have it hard. They might have become cinematic—even The Tick is directed by Chris Nolan’s cinematographer Wally Pfister—but the idea of setting up a premise and a structure in a limited window, before losing the audience’s interest, has become harder than ever. Used to masterful story-telling on tap, we are a more exacting audience and pilot episodes now function almost like exposition-filled trailers: Step right up to see the protagonist, the world, the conflict, the challenge, the will-they-won’t-they love interest. It is an approach that has led to many eventually fine shows starting off with too much oversteer, giving us a first episode we need to get out of the way like a pesky prologue before sinking our teeth into the meat of the show. Even The Get Down, which I raved about right here two weeks ago, has a top-heavy pilot you need to make it through in order to really let the beat hit you.
A truly great pilot episode—one that achieves the balance of exposition and world-building and character introduction and, most importantly, a genuine lack of obviousness—is a thing of beauty. For me, the finest pilot episode of all-time— edging out The Sopranos, Archer and Mad Men—is Aaron Sorkin’s breathless opening of The West Wing, the virtuoso screenwriting introducing us not just to the characters but to the very spirit of the show as White House staffers scramble around to help out some chump with a funny name called Potus. The other smart approach, one taken by the sharpest comedies, is to not give it all away and instead freewheel till the show finds its own voice, which is why they lay open some cards and leave others face-down. (The Seinfeld pilot, for instance, completely sets up Jerry and George, but calls Kramer by another name, doesn’t know what to do with Elaine and, crucially, there is no sense of the elegant dovetailing of multiple plotlines the show became so famous for.) In this time of pilots as promos, it is that kind of amusingly half-baked storytelling (that, if we’re lucky, turns into pure chocolate cake) that we sadly seem to be missing out on.
My eternal gratitude, thus, to Jill Solloway and her mastery of effortlessness that makes even complex, beautiful shows like Transparent and I Love Dick fly right from the start. And for the fact that I’m typing out this column in big white text on a blindingly red screen.
What life’s too short to watch:
On paper, Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens—a frantically eye-rolling take on schlocky horror movies—read like a smash, plus anything with Jamie Lee Curtis is automatically better than anything without her. The pilot itself, however, is soul-sappingly disappointing, trying too desperately to straddle spoof and traditional comedy and failing at both. It’s on Hotstar, but steer clear.
Documentary to watch this week:
Blame it on The Get Down, but I’ve never been more entranced by the work DJs do. The fantastically named I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead breaks down superstar DJ Steve Aoki and shows us the pieces of the jigsaw that made him who he is. Give this a spin even if you don’t think this is your kind of music. Now on Netflix.
Streams of Stories is a weekly column on what watch to online.