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By Becky Kifer · May 8, 2013
For Amazon’s original content experiment we’ve been given the power to lift a potential new series to the very height, or the lowest dredges, of internet obscurity. To all the contestants, just remember that online fame may be fleeting, but at least if you win you’ll get to be remembered as “that one show.”
For the eight comedy pilots (I’m ignoring the kid-centric shows, as being childless means you get the pleasure of ignoring bad animation), we’re given the choice to determine our own entertainment fate by voting potential ventures up or down in a “the tribe has spoken” style. These little acorn shows will either sprout or die according to our whims—it’s just too bad we don’t get a say in the show itself. Betas, the more appropriately named pilot for this trial run, is a perfect example of how a little crowdsourcing could improve an at times clever—but mostly puerile—gigabites feast.
Centered on four friends trying to make the next big social app, Betas is like the Dollar Tree equivalent of The Social Network. The central character, Trey (Joe Dinicol) has his sights set on a rich investor who can get them all the seed money they need to get their project off the ground—a networking tool that connects people with nearby compatible strangers. His best friend and business partner, Nash (Karan Soni) thinks the app isn’t ready, but Trey is convinced that all this particular investor has to do us use the app once and he’ll know it’s The One. (Spoiler: The investor does. And finds himself a hot chick at a party who, though thirty years his junior, enjoys sushi and money just as much as he does. True love!) Never mind that Trey and Nash’s demo involves using hacked information stolen from Facebook and Foursquare. No big deal.
The biggest trouble with creating a fictional app that’s going to change the industry is that you need to actually invent a plausible app. And then create another fictional app as competition that’s so bad, the characters can compare it to their magnum opus and complain that it has no sustainability. In this case, the bad app is Valet-Me, a parking guide that helps you find empty spaces. So, let’s reiterate: A social network meant to hook you up with complete strangers? Or a parking app that helps you find an empty spot in a crowded city? If I wanted the first, I could hit up OKCupid. Give me the parking help any day of the week.
Betas has an odd duality of funny one-liners (“I don’t own pants”) followed up by sour witticisms that feel like they were pulled out of a Two and a Half Men spec script. For every step forward, there’s someone taking a crowbar to your knee. The show gets a B+ for its use of “Scrawny Depp,” and a big heaping I DON’T WANT TO LIVE ON THIS PLANET ANYMORE for the line, “If I eat any more tuna I’m gonna have to start a softball team.”
Take Hobbes (Jonathan C. Daly), a 35-year-old in a tech world dominated by 19-year-old wizkids. It’s a hilarious setup for a character—he’s dry, jaded, and vulgarly cranky. Yet his introduction involves sitting shirtless in a laundromat, watching porn and complaining that he can’t even “finish a load” because a kid has interrupted his chat session. It’s a cheap double entendre that puts him more on the level of creepy-mustache-neighbor and not the nerd-Han Solo he could be.
Everyone speaks in shortened vocabulary (vocab, for those in Silicon Valley) and is either too bro-tastically smug or unable to function when confronted with the possibility of interacting with another human being—and heaven help us if it’s a woman. Nothing can save the episode’s painful concept of all things lady. To steal a meme from our dearly departing Futurama: Not sure if misogyny…or pure tone-deafness to the real world. With maxims like “let me tell you something about ladies…they reward persistence” it’s obvious that the writers learned all their best dating tricks from the romantic comedy genre. No means no; except when you try reeeeeeally hard.
This all plays into the worst scene of the episode, where Trey is explaining the dire necessity of the app to his nerdherd. His argument is that people don’t interact anymore—case in point, the woman using her phone at the bar who is clearly looking for a connection, even after she flat-out (and rather politely) tells him she’s not interested. His defensive response: “Forgive me for trying to start a conversation in a popular social venue.” I’m surprised he didn’t follow that up with a menstruation slam. Barely twenty minutes long and Betas manages to make a Judd Apatow script look like the Feminine Mystique.
But what do I know? I’m just a hater, looking to mildly criticize by stating the obvious. Think of me like a teacher, handing back a D+ paper with a meaningful I-know-you-can-do-better look. I’ve seen six of the eight Amazon pilots so far, and Betas isn’t the worst—short of a complete recasting, I’m not sure there’s any way to save Zombieland. Yet I’m not going be voting Betas most likely to succeed. In fact, give it a week and it’ll be just another “that one show.” In two more weeks…what were we talking about again?