'Alpha' leads Amazon's pilot pack

Onion News Empire on Amazon.com

Onion News Empire on Amazon.com (May 2, 2013)

Not content to just sell us books, lawn implements, baseball bats, printers, devices to read books on, bar tools, printer paper, used printers, ink cartridges, used ink cartridges and automobile floor mats — did I miss anything? — Amazon is trying to join cable, broadcast and Netflix in providing America with original, TV-like series.

Under the Amazon Originals label, eight adult comedy pilots (and six kids' shows) are up in the mega Web store's Instant Video area, awaiting viewers' reactions. The most viewed and best liked, Amazon says, will go to series, just like at a real TV network.

But this is different because Amazon is giving the say to those who seek the shows out — and, presumably, are not voting for them just because of an emailed plea from one of the producers. 

Network shows often greet their test audiences in Las Vegas, where workers at a test facility attempt to divine how these shows will do with middle America. That's right. In the old way of doing things, low rollers, blackjack losers and those who'd rather watch TV than partake of anything else Las Vegas has to offer impact your viewing choices. 

The new model, which includes not just Amazon and Netflix but YouTube, Hulu Plus, Funny or Die and many, many more, creates a nonstop video-on-demand world that, sooner or later, is going to threaten the ecosystem of cable channels and networks. 

Amazon's idea may be the most on-demand yet. Enough of you demand it, you get the show.

This is not Podunk stuff. The Amazon comedies — we'll leave the kids' shows for another day — include a surprisingly affecting lampoon of Republican senators from Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, a faithful-ish (minus the stars) series remake of the big-screen hit "Zombieland" and the best TV news parody yet from humor publication The Onion.   

Cameos come from Bill Murray, Moby, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, and the stars include Bebe Neuwirth, John Goodman, Jeffrey Tambor and Clark Johnson

Here, then, are the new adult series from Amazon, in review.

Best in show

"Alpha House": Trudeau, smartly, takes a Washington scenario we've all heard about — legislators rooming together to save cash — and spins a skewed, casually corrupt, buddies-of-convenience comedy out of it. Liberals may enjoy this because Trudeau pulls no punches in mocking the Republican Party. One senator laughs at the rule that his campaign can't coordinate with his super PAC. One accepts the Say No To Sodomy Award from the Council for Normal Marriage. The roomies keep a candy dish full of American flag lapel pins. 

The writing sometimes stumbles: Treatment of the possibly gay roommate, now running against a he-man tea party candidate back home in Texas, comes close to being the kind of thing it wants to satirize. But there's a level of realistic detail here that HBO's "Veep," which has great small moments and misses the mark on some of the bigger ones, could use more of. And what really makes the pilot episode work is that, while their party may be drawn in caricature, none of the four men is. You root for the veteran Pennsylvania senator played by Johnson ("Homicide: Life on the Street"), even when you learn he's facing an indictment. You root for Goodman's Gil John Biggs, R-N.C., a former college coach coasting, in Falstaffian manner, through his D.C. life. 

There's surprising professionalism in all of these shows, but "Alpha House" is the most polished, the most like something you'd see on a network tomorrow, if it weren't about four old guys and politically charged. But Trudeau doesn't only blast Republicans. Here's a strong line from one of his characters that aims across the aisle: "We're the GOP. Winning is what we do. Not losing doesn't work for us. Not losing is a Democrat thing."

"Those Who Can't": The plot sounds, frankly, awful. Three buddies try to teach at a high school despite being less mature than their students. High jinks ensue. But the show from the Denver comedy trio Grawlix, discovered by Amazon Studios online, slyly subverts its own formula, at once being and sending up this kind of show. In that way it's the Amazon pilot that feels the most like a Web series: devil-may-care, supremely arch and often surprisingly funny. 

Adam Cayton-Holland, Ben Roy and Andrew Orvedahl teach Spanish, history and gym. Cayton-Holland insisting that a classroom full of native speakers of Mexican descent learn Spanish-from-Spain is very funny. Incidental characters — the touchy-feely principal, the skeptical librarian/love object — are as sharply drawn as the principals. When the show goes over the top, it manages not to fall off. Roy dresses gangsta-style — or as his wife says, "like the rhythm guitarist from Korn" — to go buy drugs to frame an obnoxious student. The scene is saved from cliche by Roy's character bringing his young son along, proudly, and by the street toughs he buys from turning out not to have been playing dice but rather Yahtzee.

Pretty good

"Onion News Empire": The Chicago-based humor conglomerate tries another series set in a newsroom. It's mostly good, imagining Onion News Network as a fully realized world, with a fading anchor (Tambor), a top executive who keeps a pet falcon and earnest young producers. 

The jokes are unrelenting, and they range from terrific — sleeper cell members undercover in America have become too fat to fit into their suicide vests; McDonald's has the Veal Meal Deal — to the ridiculous: The network kidnaps a little girl and keeps her around the office to give itself a story it can dominate. 

But there's more texture here, more density, than in prior Onion efforts, and a little more of a story to keep the viewer interested beyond the jokes. And the writing, while not afraid to toss off a groaner, is often razor-sharp. "I've slept with Henry Kissinger, Randy 'Macho Man' Savage, even Greg Kinnear," says a character.

Another asks his newsroom colleague, "Can you walk and talk at the same time?" "Yes," is the response, "I took a class." If only Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama "The Newsroom" could trade some sanctimony for more of this kind of spunk.

"Dark Minions": Cocky series, this one. A note at the outset promises that the half-done animation will be completed if it goes to series. That's not such a long shot. It's the better of two adult animation efforts, and adult animation remains popular. And it's likable, even when you're looking at rudimentary drawings.

Two stoners sign up to work for the intergalactic conglomerate that has taken over the galaxy, while various rebel groups try to fight back. Co-written by Kevin Sussman and John Ross Bowie, "Big Bang Theory" co-stars, it's all pretty laid-back and amiable, with nothing in particular to recommend against it. 

"Zombieland": Getting into the zombie game is probably never a dumb move, unless, you know, it's a game of Twister. And if you liked the 2009 movie about a group of survivors thrown together and trying to reconnect with others, you'll like this one too. There's no Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone or Jesse Eisenberg, but the stand-ins do a fine job. And the show, from the writers of the movie, maintains a light tone amid the gore, with, for instance, rules for survival in Zombieland being typed on the screen. 

Don't bother

"Betas": Young tech hotshots are trying to code and get funding for their new app, in Silicon Valley, of course. There's some nice Web-culture observation, but everything's a little broadly drawn, from the rock-star venture capitalist to the group's socially awkward lead coder. There's a heaviness of tone, too, and a crudeness of mind that undercut the relatively inconsequential goings-on. Does the world really need a new app that helps people connect? 

And then when the script tosses in — wait for it — a rival app development team, it's very hard to stay with this. If you want that kind of contrivance, you may as well go back and watch "Twister," the 1996 blockbuster with rival teams of storm chasers.

"Browsers": Another Web-culture series that's mostly a dud, this one is set at a spot-on knockoff of The Huffington Post, here called The Daily Gush. Four interns start fresh and excited at The Gush, because apparently in today's media world the dream job involves not creating content but finding it elsewhere, re-posting it and diverting the revenue stream to yourself.

The executive producer, former "Daily Show" head writer David Javerbaum, deserves credit for daring to make this a musical. Some people still talk fondly about "Cop Rock." But the singing numbers are many, and rather than creating a giddy, alternate-universe mode ("Umbrellas of Cherbourg"), they mostly are things to be endured. Meanwhile, the Huffington character, played with relish but an accent already wearing thin by Neuwirth, is way too on-the-nose, and ditto for an Ann Coulter-like figure who comes to visit. 

"Supanatural": First, let's award it a few points for being fully animated. And then take them away again for lead character Lucretia, who, in a different era, might have been played by Eddie Murphy in drag. There's a clever idea here: Two mall droogs lead a double life hunting down precious archaeological artifacts and saving the world. But it's also an idea — mall-culture parody mixed with high adventure — that'll be hard to keep going. At least the talking skull in the pilot episode sounds like a long lost brother of the skeletal sidekick on "The Craig Ferguson Show."

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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