With “House of Cards” and “Hemlock Grove,” Netflix confidently entered the original programming arena, dropping 13 episodes of each series into its streaming portals for instant binging. How did they do in terms of viewership? None of your business — Netflix does not release those figures. But Amazon Prime's new strategy is a little more transparent: viewers get to decide which of eight original comedy pilots lives or dies.
Invited users can vote on their favorites of the pilots: “Alpha House,” “Betas,” “Supanatural,” “Browsers,” “Those Who Can't,” “Zombieland,” “The Onion News Empire” and “Dark Minions.” The pedigrees on these productions provide further proof that streaming programming is the new frontier — most of these shows look ready-made for one of the big cable channels and have familiar names on their top-line credit lists.
The most impressive of all the offerings is “Alpha House,” a smart and nasty political satire from Garry Trudeau, creator of “Doonesbury.” The show centers on four U.S. senators (John Goodman, Clark Johnson, Mark Consuelos and Matt Malloy) sharing a house in Washington, D.C. The tone is similar to HBO's “Veep,” bringing the realistic mechanisms of politics together with scathing humor and a great surprise cameo — no spoilers allowed. This is the one to beat.
And “Betas” might just do it. This comedy centered on the young players in a Silicon Valley startup is like “The Social Network” with an antisocial streak. All the central players (Charlie Saxton, Joe Dinicol, Jonathan C. Daly and Karan Soni) establish their chemistry quickly, and look for Tyson Ritter of the All-American Rejects as the office hipster-sleaze. It's genuinely funny, and more importantly, I want to see what happens next with these guys.
The badly behaved dark horse in the top tier is “Those Who Can't,” which centers on three youngish high school teachers (Andrew Ovredahl, Adam Cayton-Holland and Benjamin Roy) who are terrible role models and have awful and entertainingly contentious relationships with both staff and students. If this were going for a cable slot, it would fit perfectly with “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “The League” on FX.
Rounding off the top half of Amazon's pilot offerings is The Onion News Empire, which stars Jeffrey Tambor as the horrific lead anchor and Christopher Masterson (“Malcolm in the Middle”) as the young upstart reporter — it's like Aaron Sorkin's “The Newsroom,” but actually written for laughs.
After those bright spots, the pilots encounter turbulence, and one of them crashes into a mountainside. The animated “Supanatural” is executive produced by the hilarious Kristen Schaal (“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “Bob's Burgers,” “Gravity Falls,” but its premise – hoochie mamas fighting the paranormal — seems like a one-off joke. But the stop-motion space opera “Dark Minions” does not even have the one joke — its best asset is a shifting visual aesthetic reminiscent of multi-artist graphic novels.
Despite original writers Rhett Reece and Paul Wernick returning from the great 2009 big-screen comedy “Zombieland,” the Amazon pilot feels like a pointless remake with a less-accomplished cast. And then there's “Browsers,” a singularly awful musical about interns at a news Web site. The bad music and trite comedy put me off my feed within minutes — a memorably terrible experience.
But the best entries of the Amazon pilot season are absolutely worth going forward — especially the aptly titled “Alpha House” and “Betas.” At this rate, “big green” is advancing on “big red.”