We’re talking about pilot season, the recurring program wherein Amazon rolls out a new crop of pilots and asks viewers to submit their feedback, thus inviting the potential audience to help decide which shows will go to series and which will remain as non-starters. Amazon has just recently launched the latest round of pilot season, and while this one is heavy on kids’ programming, there are two noteworthy drama pilots in the docket as well, both adapting critically acclaimed novels. One of them absolutely deserves to become a full series, and the other shows potential, even if it doesn’t fully live up to it.
Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished final novel, published posthumously in 1941, The Last Tycoon contrasts the glitz of Hollywood’s Golden Age with the stark realities of the era in which those silver-screen dreams were being crafted. Matt Bomer (Chuck, Glee) is Monroe Stahr, a hotshot producer at a growing studio who’s currently overseeing a movie based on his late wife, a starlet whose tragic death only cemented her legacy as a beloved screen icon. He regularly butts heads with studio boss Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer) over the proper balance between art and commerce, something that becomes all the more difficult with the rise of unions and as the growing influence of Nazi Germany threatens to interfere with his passion project.
Stahr and Brady themselves are loosely based on two real-life titans of Hollywood history: Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer. Fitzgerald left The Last Tycoon unfinished when he passed away at age 44, but it was later completed and published based on his notes. Tycoon has been adapted for the screen a couple of times before, but this particular incarnation started as an HBO project back in 2013, before eventually finding a home at Amazon after the cable network ultimately passed on it. Writer Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) has been with the project throughout that process, both writing the script and ultimately directing the Amazon pilot that finally got made. And while HBO might have decided to pass on The Last Tycoon, the finished product definitely shows potential to be worthy of brushing elbows with shows like The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire.
The Last Tycoon is a great pilot, visually and thematically contrasting the impossible glamour of 1930s showbiz against the darker realities of the era. The studio is a haven filled with talented, beautiful people bringing dreams to life… while a Hoovertown populated by the desperate and the downtrodden lurks just outside the gates, waiting to be bulldozed to make room for more manufactured reality. World War II is still on the horizon, but the shadow of the Nazi regime is also encroaching in unexpected ways. Bomer is wonderful as Stahr, a seemingly untouchable Hollywood golden boy whose perfectly groomed exterior hides deep scars and uncertainty. Grammer continues to play against a Frasier type as Brady, a father figure to Stahr, but not so paternal that he’ll let his fondness for his padawan stand in the way of his larger ambitions for the studio. Lily Collins also shines as Cecelia, Brady’s daughter who wants in on her pop’s entertainment empire—aspirations her father is determined to stomp flat.
The Last Tycoon is gorgeously shot, with strong performances and a cracking-good script by Ray (favorite line: “I’m not talented enough to be unprepared—are you?”). Hopefully this one will garner lots of thumbs up from viewers, because it’d be a tragedy for this one episode to be the last we see of The Last Tycoon.
Young Jules Jacobson is both thrilled and a little overwhelmed when her mother and sister drop her off at a creative arts camp in the summer of 1974. Much to her surprise, she soon finds herself mingling with the cream of the crop, the camp’s “cool kids,” who sardonically dub themselves “the Interestings.” There’s aspiring cartoonist Ethan Figman; musician Jonah Bay, who hopes to outshine the shadow of his famous and successful mother; siblings Ash and Goodman Wolf; and Cathy, who dreams of being a ballerina but worries that her breasts are too big. From that initial summer meeting, The Interestings flashes forward and back through the ensuing decades, revealing how the so-called Interestings lives have unfolded—almost never, unsurprisingly, as the kids imagined.
Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose plays the adult Jules in this adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s critically acclaimed 2013 novel (except in the 1970s camp scenes, when young Jules is played by Katie Balen). The rest of the grown-up cast include familiar faces such as David Krumholtz (Numb3rs) as Figman and Jessica Pare (Mad Men) as Ash. British director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Four Weddings and a Funeral) helms the pilot, from a script by TV veterans Lynnie Greene and Richard Levine (Masters of Sex, Nip/Tuck).
The cast are all capable and deliver fine performances, with Ambrose and Krumholtz as standouts, but the time-hopping narrative does sometimes make it hard to get a true feel for who the characters are at any given point. Obviously that would be the focus of the proposed series—how they got from there to here, and all the stops along the way. But it still feels like maybe lingering longer in one or two of the sequences would have worked better, as opposed to constantly staying on the move quite so much. The script also suffers from the fact that, even though the self-applied nickname “the Interestings” is supposed to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, this group of kids is still supposed to live up to that appellation, at least in future potential. While young Katie Balen is great as Jules, the rest of the Interestings come off as privileged and elitist at best, and punch-worthy little shits at worst. That may be part of the point, but either way the early scenes didn’t sell me on wanting to spend four decades watching these characters grow up.
Overall, The Interestings is a mixed bag that does, at minimum, earn its title. But “interesting” may not be enough to merit a return as a full series. If it’s a choice between this or The Last Tycoon, that choice is easily made.
In addition to the two new drama offerings, this round of Amazon’s pilot season also includes a half-dozen new kids’ pilots, including a revamped version of Sid & Marty Krofft’s Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. Head over to Amazon to check them out.