Network television took another hard hit to the family jewels when Netflix started cranking out original series (“House of Cards,” “Hemlock Grove,” the upcoming “Arrested Development”). Now Amazon is getting in on the action as well, producing an entire network’s worth of shows without so much as a television in sight. Is television dead as a medium? Hard to say just yet. But there are now plenty of other places—besides your television set—to watch bad TV.
Head on over to AmazonOriginals.com and you’ll be faced with 14 pilot episodes. Six of them are faintly educational kids’ cartoons and eight of them are labeled sitcoms. The objective is to get viewers to watch the pilots and vote on which ones will continue as series. (Looks like some Amazon executive dug up an old Wikipedia article on Channel 101.) Eventually, of course, the idea is to get you to do a pay-per-episode thing, a la iTunes. The most high-profile of these new pilots is “Zombieland.” It’s based on the hit 2009 movie written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. The premise is basically the same: Four strangers try to survive a zombie apocalypse. The first thing fans of the original film will notice about this scaled-down series is that the film’s stars (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) have all been replaced by the notably less expensive Tyler Ross, Kirk Ward, Maiara Walsh and Izabela Vidovic. (The only one you stand any chance of recognizing is Walsh, who did time on such TV shows as “Cory in the House,” “Switched at Birth” and “Desperate Housewives.”)
A more budget-conscious cast isn’t the only noticeable downgrade. The show now has a cheap, sitcom-ish quality which mostly finds our four cast members standing around empty parking lots trading one-liners. The characters have been simplified a bit from the well-acted original. Our zombie-killing badass Tallahassee, for example, is now a knuckleheaded moron. Wary tough girl Wichita is just a moody chick. And paranoid, rule-spouting survivor Columbus is required to deliver all the smartass dialogue. The series is still written by Reese and Wernick, but the spark isn’t quite there anymore. (Losing Bill Murray was another tragic blow to the whole concept.) As it stands, “Zombieland” is largely indistinguishable from a hundred other slapsticky horror comedies.
If the series lives up to its promise, sending its cast on a cross-country road trip from Los Angeles to New York, it might generate a few clever ideas. The pilot, however, is rather small potatoes. The group’s OnStar representative (not just a product placement, mind you, but an actual recurring character) sends them on a wild goose chase around L.A. to find other survivors. The wacky joke is that every time our quartet meets an actual person, they immediately get killed. That’s pretty much it for the first half-hour. Hey, if you wanted good TV, you should have subscribed to HBO.