The way we consume television is constantly changing. Netflix's successful move into original programming has led to Emmy nominations for House of Cards and critical acclaim for the prison drama Orange Is The New Black. Now another online retail company is entering the fray with the release of Amazon's first two original series, a political sitcom Alpha House and a tech comedy Betas, this month. UK viewers can watch both shows via LoveFilm.
From the beginning Amazon has pursued a different policy from Netflix. Where the latter dispensed with pilots and ordered an entire series of each new show, Amazon commissioned eight comedy pilots, placed them online and asked for customer feedback. Alpha House and Betas received the most four and five-star reviews and so were commissioned to full series. Other high-profile concepts such as a spin-off from the cult movie Zombieland failed to please fans and were dropped. Where Netflix looked to adaptations (Orange is the New Black), remakes (House of Cards) and old favourites (the return of Arrested Development) to make its mark, Amazon has chosen to place power largely in the hands of the consumer.
Has the gamble paid off? The two pilots to make it through the initial stage were probably the strongest. Alpha House, written by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, is a scabrous look at four Republican senators sharing a house in Washington DC. It plays out like a cross between Animal House and Veep and is's anchored by strong central performances from John Goodman and The Wire's Clark Johnson.
It's not perfect – the lack of Democrats in the first episode makes it seem slightly lopsided – but there's an appealing looseness to the cast interactions and a sense that being online allows Trudeau to push lines that even Armando Iannucci might have flinched from.
Betas, meanwhile, is a likeable Silicon Valley-set comedy directed by Michael Lehmann (best-known for Heathers) and revolves around a quartet of tech geeks who are desperate to create the next big app.
There's a nicely goofy turn from Ed Begley Jnr as a laidback possible investor and the character development is strong. Again not everything works – there's little that hasn't been done in The IT Crowd or Big Bang Theory – but the freedom from network control means that the quirky Betas rarely goes for the obvious and allows its characters to grow on you.
It's hard to say whether either show will be an out-and-out hit although Amazon has chosen, again, to take a different path from Netflix, releasing each episode on a weekly basis in the hope of building a conversation on social media rather than dumping every episode online for a binge watch.
As to the future, the company recently launched Amazon Preview, a service which allows its "best customers" to provide feedback on entertainment projects – "before they're available to anyone else". Those projects will include television pilots, although the service will not be available to those working in PR, advertising, journalism, market research or television or movie production, marketing or distribution.
Meanwhile, two drama pilots have also been announced: The After, a drama set during the apocalypse from X-Files' creator Chris Carter, and Bosch, an adaptation of Michael Connolly's best-selling crime novels to be written by Treme's Eric Overmyer. Both pilots will again be shown to Amazon customers for feedback before any decision is made.
Alpha House and Betas are on amazon.com and will be available to LoveFilm customers in the UK later this year
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