What is a Pilot Season and Why Should You Care?

An Amazon Prime subscription is a bit like a closet with too many clothes in it: every once in awhile you discover some new thing you forgot you paid for and are pleasantly surprised by it. Among these things is a video streaming service that features a variety of tv and movies, including some originals. There’s also a nifty thing called a pilot season. Viewers can watch a bunch of different pilots, fill out a survey, and Amazon uses the info to determine which ones will become a full series. Essentially, Amazon has turned their entire subscriber pool into a focus group, a market innovation that gives us one more thing to love about the streaming economy.

m2_001_trans_1sht_V1.inddThe concept already has a few success stories to boast, most notably Transparent, which earned Amazon 10 of its 16 Emmy nominations this year, and it won five last year. The show’s lead, Jeffrey Tambor, not only won the 2015 Emmy for Best Lead Comedy Actor, but the equivalent titles at the SAG and Critics’ Choice Awards as well. (I would argue this show shouldn’t be competing in the “comedy” categories based on its content, but I won’t waste your time with that soapbox right now.) There’s also one of my new personal favorites, Mozart in the Jungle, which won the 2016 Golden Globes for Outstanding Comedy or Musical Series and Outstanding Actor in a Comedy or Musical Series. (Transparent was also nominated in both categories).

Of course there’s some drawbacks of the Pilot Season, perhaps one of the first being that it takes longer to make final decisions and get content out to the public. I can’t help but think that if Amazon had simply greenlit Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle back in February 2014 when both made their debuts as pilots, we might have three seasons of each by now instead of just two. This delay is in stark contrast to Netflix’s model of bombarding its user base with so much original content people are bound to find something they like and fall in love with the whole season right away. So far, Netflix has launched at least one new original series every month of 2016, plus new seasons of many other Netflix originals. Can Amazon match that pace as long as they’re running each pilot by their entire subscriber base? I have my doubts.

But perhaps Amazon doesn’t need to have the sheer amount of original content that Netflix has. If they can build a strong brand as a crowd-sourced streaming service, that could be enough to set them apart from competitors. This seems to be their intention. Not only does Amazon let viewers watch pilots and decide which ones to green light, they also invite the public to submit their own scripts and other ideas, as well as offer input at various stages of development. According to the website, Amazon Studios “will test premises, storyboards, posters, videos, test movies, pilots, promos, and other formats to see what people think.” It’s an exciting prospect for people who love both the sharing economy and quality television. Maybe viewers will tolerate a smaller catalog and long wait times between a pilot and a full season in order to make the concept work.

So what about the actual pilots that might become a new series? The most recent pilot season is predominantly children’s shows, but there are a couple of adult-oriented dramas, The Last Tycoon and The Interestings. So far the public seems to prefer the former, which has 80 percent 5-star reviews compared to the latter’s 64 percent. I can’t say I disagree.

The Last Tycoon
stars Matt Bomer in the role of Monroe Stahr, a hot shot movie producer in the 1930s. His passion project is a biopic about his late wife, but things get complicated when the studio tries to make a deal with Nazi Germany. It’s a great pilot that not only kept me interested for a whole hour, but also did a good job of telling us what conflicts we can expect if this gets turned into a full series. The Last Tycoon promises an eternal struggle between artistic idealism and corporate compromise, a protagonist who’s not afraid to stand up to Hitler, and a healthy dose of sexual tension. There’s also a lot of potential to explore libertarian themes of free speech and the general badness of fascism. As an added bonus, the pilot had gorgeous production design that really helped the 1930s come alive. I can honestly say I will be disappointed if this is the last we see of The Last Tycoon.

Then there’s The Interestings. This one shows potential, but it also reveals one of the glaring negatives about the pilot season concept: not all great shows have great pilots. The Interestings follows a young girl named Jules to an arts camp in 1974. She quickly befriends the cool kids, they bond over their dreams of hitting it big in various arts disciplines, and then we follow them over several decades and learn how their lives turned out. Because the show skips around between different eras, tries to build a multitude of characters, and also tries to establish secrets that might make us curious for another episode, the pilot ends up being a little too mysterious for its own good. I just didn’t learn enough to really fall in love with the premise right away. Of course this could be a brilliant show that just needs a few more episodes to hit its stride, but if it never gets that chance I’ll understand why.

The streaming economy has launched a whole new world of possibilities, and Amazon Video is taking advantage of some of the more exciting ones. They certainly have some challenges ahead, but ultimately Amazon is trying to pioneer a whole new way of running a streaming service, and I really hope they pull it off. The next pilot season will make its debut on August 19, and will focus on comedy.