3 new Amazon Prime pilots: Surreal, vulgar, and inspirational

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Bridget Everett in Love You More. (Photo: Amazon)

Three new TV shows begin streaming by way of Amazon Prime Video on Friday — three pilots, each about a half-hour long, that could not be more different from each other. The show with the biggest names is Sea Oak, created by the much-esteemed writer George Saunders, author of the recent novel Lincoln in the Bardo. Saunders is best known for his short stories, and Sea Oak has some of the punch of a well-constructed short tale. It’s about a working-class family whose matriarch, Bernie (played by Glenn Close) is a meek, beaten-down woman who labors in a 99-cent store. She lives with two nieces and a nephew, who lead their own grim little lives.

Aunt Bernie dies early on, but is reinvigorated as an angry chatterbox zombie bent on revenging the sad little life she led. The Sea Oak pilot is written by Saunders and directed by Hiro Murai, who also directed many of the best episodes of the wonderful Donald Glover FX series Atlanta. The tone of Sea Oak is wobbly, constantly shifting between bleak drama, dark comedy, and wild surrealism. Just as you begin thinking the show is finding its proper balance, it’s over — but it leaves you wanting to see another episode, to find out more about what this peculiar family will do next.

The second pilot, The Climb, was created by its star, Diarra Kilpatrick. The opening half-hour sketches the friendship between Nia (Kilpatrick) and her close friend, Misty (Alysha Umphress), and their struggles to succeed in their work and romantic lives. Nia works in an office that is vaguely defined for a reason — Nia is so unwilling to commit to its drudgery, she honestly doesn’t know what the company does, and declines to find out. “I want to be fulfilled,” she declares. Nia dreams of a life of creative celebrity, and her fantasies sometimes overtake the narrative. The Nia-Misty friendship is more than a little Broad City-ish, and the riffs on subjects like “black Malibu Barbie” sound familiar, but Kilpatrick is a very likable screen presence.

Finally, there’s Love You More, the pilot that would seem to have the most likely chance of being picked up for a full series. It stars Bridget Everett as Karen Best, a woman working as a health care professional at a residence for young people with Down syndrome. At this job, Karen is sweet and supportive; once she leaves work, she lets her wild side show, picking up guys in bars for cheerful one-night stands.

Much is made of Karen’s large size — she simultaneously revels in her big-girl freedom and sometimes feels oppressed by other people’s stereotyping of what a large women must be like. At one point, after being treated condescendingly by a salesperson, Karen breaks into an abrupt musical number in the shop, singing a genially vulgar song about her breasts that has long been a mainstay of Everett’s cabaret act.

The comedian has had a strong New York City cult following and small roles in Inside Amy Schumer and Girls, so Love You More feels like her formal breakthrough. The show is directed by Bobcat Goldthwait; its showrunner is Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City, 2 Broke Girls). Everett, Goldthwait, and King co-wrote the pilot. It walks a line between the bold and the sentimental that I would guess a lot of people are going to find appealing.

Sea Oak, The Climb, and Love You More are streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

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