Amazon streams its way to a leading TV role

Zurawik: Amazon might just have the best show on TV

It's been an epic week for Amazon, Maura Pfefferman and streaming TV.

Two Golden Globes for "Transparent," a daring dramedy starring Jeffrey Tambor on a gender-changing journey from Mort to Maura Pfefferman, got the ball rolling at the televised awards show last Sunday night. And then came the announcement Tuesday that Woody Allen had been signed to write and direct a series that was guaranteed a one-season commitment from the online service.

Two days later, Amazon premiered pilots for seven new series, including "The Man in the High Castle", an alternative history circa 1962, had America lost World War II. It's produced by Ridley Scott ("Blade Runner") and adapted by Frank Spotnitz ("The X-Files") from the Philip K. Dick novel.

Beyond buying books and baby food online, subscribers to Amazon Prime now have the chance to vote on the pilots and play a role in determining which series will get a full-season commitment. Those productions given a green light will debut in September, as "Transparent" did last year.

Any questions about parity with network and cable TV should have been answered last Sunday with Tambor winning the Golden Globe for best comedy actor, while Kevin Spacey won for best dramatic actor in the Maryland-made Netflix series, "House of Cards." The two best male performances on television last year weren't actually on TV — they were on streaming video on demand.

And there's more excellence to come, because such services as Netflix and Amazon are, in at least one way, the antithesis of what network TV has been for some 40 years, according to producers and writers. The new media outlets want those who create TV shows to take risks rather than avoiding them.

Instead of finding a winning formula such as "CSI" and ordering up multiple spinoffs, as network TV has long done, online outlets want producers willing to shatter templates — and the louder the explosion, the better. Meanwhile, Netflix and Amazon are doing their demolition on an outdated, cumbersome, bureaucratic pilot process that more often than not strips a new project of anything edgy or unique.

"I've never seen anything like this," says Spotnitz, a writer and producer on "The X-Files" from 1996 to 2002. "Right now, it's the first time in my career where people want you to take chances. They want it to be something different that nobody's ever seen. They want it to be risky and bold, because that's how they're going to get attention. For me, it's just like you've got to pinch yourself. It's so different from the TV culture I started in 20 years ago."

And it's not just attitude, Spotnitz said in a telephone interview last week.

"They have the resources to mount it properly," he said of "The Man in the High Castle," the period drama that requires creating a 1962 that never existed. "Looking back on it, I'm thinking how lucky we were to wind up at Amazon, because they were willing to spend the money. You know, this is a very big show and not a lot of people would have had the courage to invest in it the way they did."

Jill Soloway, the creator of "Transparent," described a process that featured much support and no roadblocks in getting "Transparent" made at Amazon Studios.

"The ways that Amazon has disrupted TV as usual have been revolutionary for me," Soloway said in an email to The Baltimore Sun last week. "They never micromanaged, only offered big ideas and unconditional support. Their belief in me as an artist let me create this thing that felt so specific and personal day to day and moment to moment as we made it; now that the appeal has been proven to be so revolutionary, I am even more blown away. I'm forever grateful for their faith."

"Transparent" was the game-changer for Amazon — even before the Golden Globes.

Amazon got off to a decent start in original programming in 2013 with "Alpha House," the Washington-based satire of political life with John Goodman and Clark Johnson.

In terms of production values, it felt like middle-range basic cable TV — certainly not in a league with AMC's "Mad Men" or "Breaking Bad," but equal to USA's "Suits" or "Sirens."

The bad news for Amazon: "Alpha House" debuted the same year as another streamed series set in Washington, "House of Cards," which Netflix spent $100 million on so that director David Fincher could make the opening episodes that he directed as rich and textured as his feature films, like "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" or "The Social Network."

As a result, Amazon looked like a the downscale streaming service — what Showtime used to be to HBO in the world of premium cable.

"Alpha House" also finished a deep second to "House of Cards" on content. Even though it was created by political cartoonist Garry Trudeau, the series felt more like a network comedy than a cable satire — with broad jokes and sight gags instead of the intellectual and verbal bite of HBO's "Veep."

Beau Willimon, screenwriter for the George Clooney feature film "Ides of March," meanwhile, made "House of Cards" run as deep and dark as anything on American TV in his role as showrunner.

But "Transparent" is not only every bit as deep, it's also poignant, touching and funny. It feels more like a labor of love on the part of Soloway and the actors than anything else on TV. And as rich and layered as Spacey is in his performance as Frank Underwood, Tambor is right there with him. And Tambor's task is by far the more challenging of the two.

The veteran actor's performance in the pilot as he prepares for and tries to tell his three self-absorbed grown children that he is becoming the woman he always wanted to be is utterly engrossing. It is impossible not to want to click to the second episode as the pilot ends to see what happens next as he leaves Mort behind and more fully becomes Maura.

The second episode opens with Maura coming home to find, in her bedroom, her married daughter, Sarah (Amy Landecker), kissing a lesbian lover, Tammy (Melora Hardin). But because she is dressed as a woman, it is Maura who winds up explaining herself rather than the daughter, who is married to a man with whom she has two children.

After Maura explains her transition, Sarah, says, "Help me out here. Are you saying, like, you're going to start dressing up like a lady all the time?"

"No, all my life I've been dressing up as a man," Maura says. "This is me."

Tambor deserved the Golden Globe just for the tenderness, pain and exquisite pacing with which he delivered that line.

And what writing by Soloway, who communicated more about transgendered identity with those 14 words from Maura than anything I saw on network or cable TV last year dealing with the subject at length — fiction or nonfiction.

Based on the pilots that Amazon dropped Thursday, I am not suggesting that "The Man in the High Castle" is in a league with "Transparent." I don't think any of the pilots in this year's crop is.

There has not been a new series anywhere on television the last two years as illuminating and transcendent as "Transparent."

But "The Man in the High Castle" is an ambitious and engaging drama that skillfully explores fascism and American identity. And I think it could be super-successful with the hard-to-reach young male audience, given the two young characters at the center of the pilot played by Alexa Davalos ("Mob City") and Luke Kleintank ("Bones").

I am impressed with Amazon for bringing such a drama to its subscribers for a vote when there are so many less expensive ways to go. I am also encouraged by what Spotnitz said about how his series found its way into Amazon's pilot lineup.

"It was just luck, I guess, that an executive I had worked with before, Morgan Wandell, joined Amazon a little over a year ago," Spotnitz said of the head of drama development at the streaming service.

"And he called me and said, 'Do you have anything really exciting that you would really love to do?' … And he read the script, and that was it. That's the first time in my career that's ever happened where I got a call like that and it actually led to the show being made."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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