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.