Over the past decade, television has undergone rapid, major change—to the extent that many are calling it a new “Golden Age” of television. Up until very recently, television was referred to as the “boob tube” for very good reason—programming was cheap and disposable, the writing was lazy and clichéd, and the banality of reality television reigned supreme. But then, a curious thing happened—cable content providers like HBO and Showtime began developing their own programming, with an emphasis on quality storytelling, compelling characters, and impeccable craft. Groundbreaking shows like THE SOPRANOS and THE WIRE showed off the medium’s potential for powerful, cinematic storylines. As Hollywood studios were experiencing a budget arms race in a bid to capture the theatrical box office with ever-increasing spectacle (and decreasing returns on originality and quality), television was able to assert itself as a home for substantial, thought-provoking, and innovative content. In short, the spirit of cinema in the 1960’s and 1970’s was born anew in the form of modern-day premium television.
The last few years have seen even-more unconventional providers like Netflix and Hulu getting in on the original programming game. For Netflix, this strategy has been insanely successful—giving us the likes of HOUSE OF CARDS and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK—and for Hulu, less so. Perhaps the most radical player in this new wave of television, however, is Amazon—a site that until only recently had been primarily considered as America’s online retail store. The television game of the 2010’s dictates that the entity with the best programming slate will attract the most amount of subscribers to their proprietary service, and Amazon has emerged as quite the unexpected player. Amazon’s Pilot program is unique to its peers in that it presents a slate of pilots every year and allows the public to choose what will continue in series form or not.
The 2014 Amazon pilot slate was just released for public voting, and one of the entries is THE COSMOPOLITANS, director Whit Stillman’s latest work after 2011’s DAMSELS IN DISTRESS. Produced by Alex Corven Coronia and written by Stillman himself, THE COSMOPOLITANS follows a group of young expats looking for love and friendship in contemporary Paris. No doubt inspired by Stillman’s decade-long residency in the City of Lights at the beginning of the new millenium, the pilot episode of THE COSMOPOLITANS doesn’t boast much in the way of a discernable plot or story, but serves rather as an introduction to the main characters. There’s Jimmy (DAMSELS IN DISTRESS alum Adam Brody), an anxious, neurotic expat who’s relatively older age can’t save him from random attacks of puppy love. He’s joined by Adriano Giannini as Sandro—a suave, carefree Italian and perhaps a little too old for such youthful endeavors—and Jordan Rountree as Hal—a stuffy, over-serious prep. Fellow DAMSELS IN DISTRESS alum Carrie MacLemore plays Aubrey, who has just moved to Paris and serves as a mousey, naïve addition to the expat crew. THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (1998) star Chloe Sevigny plays Vicky, an aloof fashion journalist. Rounding out the cast is Dree Hemingway as the shy, quiet Camille and Freddy Asblom as Fritz, a rich young Parisian who has quite the high opinion of himself. The group’s chemistry together doesn’t exactly generate a lot of spark, but they’re charming enough to fit right in with Stillman’s career-long examination of the urban bourgeoisie.
Lensed by cinematographer Antoine Monod, THE COSMOPOLITANS retains the unadorned, journeyman visual style that Stillman utilizes. He doesn’t seem to be interested in cultivating a distinct visual aesthetic for himself, which perhaps speaks more to his preference for literary over cinematic style. He doesn’t move the camera, save for a singular tracking shot at the end of the pilot, and routinely opts for talking-head close-ups which, while compelling from a characterization point of view, does little in the way of giving us an immersive sense of Paris and its distinct landscape. The image—which is unclear to me as to whether it’s film or digital—is also curiously over-lit, especially in the central house party sequence. DAMSELS IN DISTRESS deviated from Stillman’s general preference for naturalistic lighting in his cinematography, and THE COSMOPOLITANS appears to follow this trend. Stillman also incorporates his eccentric pop affectations into the musical soundscape of the pilot, peppering it with doses of French pop and Motown soul and anchoring it with Joan Osbourne’s cover of “What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted?”.
Stillman’s last foray into television—an episode for 1996’s HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET”—was during a very different era for the medium, and Stillman was forced to work within the aesthetic confines of the series established by the producers. 2014 is a different story, and Stillman has almost free-reign in establishing the look and tone of THE COSMOPOLITANS. Beginning with his director credit, shared on screen with the credits for his other collaborators, Stillman clues us in on the fact that we may be in a different storytelling format but we can expect the same Stillman flavor that we’ve come to enjoy from his feature work. THE COSMOPOLITANS wears its literary ambitions on its sleeve—the plot resembles something like a modern day update to Ernest Hemingway’s seminal novel about expats in Paris, “The Sun Also Rises” (I also suspect that in this regard, the casting of Hemingway’s granddaughter Dree Hemingway wasn’t necessarily a total coincidence). The characters in the pilot serve as continued proof of Stillman’s artistic thesis— that the elite leisure class is in decline due to their over-education; they’re ultimately ineffectual because they’d rather sit around and philosophize or intellectualize their struggles instead of taking action to gain control of them. They’re only relevant when they are in the good graces of society’s upper crust, so their main struggle in life is to hold onto their “privileged” status as much as they can.
The pilot for THE COSMOPOLITANS is a solid introduction to its characters, but it’s entirely possible that an introduction is all we’ll ever get. The model behind Amazon’s pilot programs is constructed so that popular vote decides whether a pilot is picked up to series. While THE COSMOPOLITANS is interesting for those who are acquainted with Stillman’s body of work, it remains to be seen whether it is interesting enough for the wider population. The pilot is available for online voting for a few more weeks, and if THE COSMOPOLITANS is picked up to series, it should serve as a fun, intellectually stimulating continuation of Stillman’s unique worldview.
The new wave of programming—designed to take advantage of consumer binge watching—has been suggested to be a new medium different from television entirely, more akin to a good novel instead of episodic television. In that sense, THE COSMOPOLITANS may just prove to be an inspired conduit for Stillman’s literary affectations and provide him with a storytelling format that’s tailor-made for him.
THE COSMOPOLITANS pilot is currently unavailable for viewing, but should be up again when the series premieres on Amazon later in 2016.
Produced by: Alex Corven Caronia
Written by: Whit Stillman
Director of Photography: Antoine Monod
Edited by: Sophie Corra