In the second episode of Amazon‘s Betas, the main character makes a tongue-in-cheek launch video for the hookup app he’s developing. It’s to poke fun at the cliched life a blogger accused him of living in a harsh takedown post, but instead it highlights the show’s weaknesses: The character, and the show, try very, very hard to be cool.
Betas is Amazon Studios‘ second original series, which launched Nov. 22, just one week after the political comedy Alpha House from Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau. While Alpha House didn’t have quite enough clever punchlines, Betas has too many.
The half-hour comedy follows a group of four Silicon Valley dudes working on a startup social networking app tailored toward “dating.” Joe Dinicol is twenty-something CEO Trey, the ideas man who persuaded his nerdy hacker engineer BFF Nash (Karan Soni) to drop out of Stanford and start their hookup app. Charlie Saxton is programmer Mitchell, and Jon Daly is odd-man-out 35-year-old slacker security chief Hobbes.
The show’s main problem is that the dialogue is so clever and stylized, but none of the characters seem to believe what they’re saying. Betas is sort of like a cruder, tech-centric version of the Dawson’s Creek dilemma: Do teens really talk like that? No. They don’t. But in this case, it’s, “Are these people really this clever all the time?” The answer is also no. They’re definitely not, but the writers would like them to be.
“We took a few trips to the Bay Area and spent time at accelerators and startups, and we did a lot of phone interviews with venture capitalists, angel investors and tech CEOs,” Betas co-creator Evan Endicott told Mashable. “It turned out that the culture and our perceptions of the startup space turned out to be accurate – just from us being people who use apps, read sites like Mashable or go to movies like The Social Network.”
Want to create a drinking game? Take a shot every time someone on Betas name-drops an app (real or fake), a meme or some sort of Silicon Valley tech-speak nonsense. (Drinking games based on Amazon original series are totally the future.)
Basically, this show is packed with a Diablo Cody-level of cute pop culture references, but most of the time it just doesn’t feel natural coming from the actors’ mouths.
“We’re going for something along the lines of HBO’s Girls where the jokes come from character and reality and there’s a lot less actual jokes,” Alan Cohen co-executive producer and showrunner said. “We’re really going for realism as much as we can.”
Actually (surprisingly?), All-American Rejects frontman Tyson Ritter is the only one who can handle the slang. Maybe it’s because the singer-turned-actor plays an arty douche, and though he might not be one of those in real life, he most definitely knows a few.
There’s a cute wink to Ritter’s past when a drunken extra karaokes an AAR song, but it gets significantly less cute when you have to listen to an extra fake-drunk-singing karaoke for more than 10 seconds. Most people don’t like to subject themselves to karaoke in real life, so lingering on a karaoke singer for a longer-than-appropriate time in a TV show is just plain rude.
Of the two regular female characters, Margo Harshman stands out as Lisa, the electronic cigarette-smoking, no-nonsense publicist working for the app’s investor, George Murchison (played by Ed Begley Jr.). Lisa is smart and sees through Trey’s bullshit, but she finds herself attracted to him anyway. Isn’t that how it always goes? But at least she doesn’t go along with their stupidity.
When the show stops trying so hard (like, so, so hard), it can get really good. There’s a touching moment between Trey and Nash at the end of the third episode that shows why these two are truly friends, and why we should care about the characters. Really! From the same show that referred to one of the aforementioned guys as a “tandoori fucktard” about ten minutes prior.
Plus, when you stuff so many punchlines into a half hour, at least a few of them are going to land. When Daly’s Hobbes brings the carcass of his dead dog into a bar to mourn, the other guys question how he was able to bring it into a bar in the first place. “It’s not an outside beverage, dude,” he quips. It’s funny.
The music is pretty good – all in the indie-rock vein, obviously. The theme song, “Power Lines” by Telekinesis, is darn catchy.
Betas feels like it was developed during MTV’s scripted TV initiative, but then the creators decided they wanted to be able to curse so they shopped it somewhere else. It just seems incongruous at Amazon, a very narrow-interest show for such a wide-ranging platform.
Apparently, though, it’s what the people wanted. It and Alpha House were among the 14 original pilots Amazon streamed in April and allowed the public to vote on which ones they liked the best, with the top-voted pilots getting series consideration.
“Creatively, Amazon has left us to our own devices; they really wanted us to go for it, which is refreshing without any network shackles of storytelling,” Betas co-executive producer and showrunner Alan Freedland said.
Like Hulu, Amazon is releasing its shows on a weekly basis rather than dumping them all at once, as Netflix does. Since Netflix doesn’t release its viewing numbers, it’s anyone’s guess as to which approach is more successful.
With Alpha House and now Betas, Amazon Studios has made two extremely different shows. The other three series being released on the company’s Prime service are all children’s programs. So what kind of audience is Amazon hoping to reach? Alpha House‘s humor is definitely older-skewing, while it’d be surprising if anyone over age 35 could last through more than five minutes of Betas without wanting to punch all of them in the face and having to Google at least two of the apps they mention.
The good news is that, having screened the first three installments, Betas improves with each episode. If the writers are able to temper their cleverness with more emotional moments and get us to actually care about what these d-bags are doing, it could succeed. The question is, who’s going to stick around that long?
Images: Amazon Studios
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