Sunday, September 7, 2014

Episode of the Week: The Cosmopolitans - "The Broken Hearted"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.


If nothing else, the Amazon Pilot Series will be remembered for providing a space for notable creators to birth projects with more freedom than networks would afford them.  This endeavor, which is now in its third cycle, has given us the first series from Chris Carter since The X-Files concluded (The After), an odd Roman Coppola-scripted pilot about orchestral musicians (Mozart in the Jungle), and an 80s comedy produced by Steven Soderbergh and directed by David Gordon Green (Red Oaks).

Enter Whit Stillman, the idiosyncratic indie auteur behind acclaimed films like Barcelona, Metropolitan, and Damsels in Distress.  His new Amazon pilot, The Cosmopolitans, doesn't find him straying away from his wheelhouse for his first foray into television.  He's still interested in telling stories about the cultured upper class, this time following expatriates Jimmy (Adam Brody, doing his best Chris Eigeman), Hal (Jordan Rountree), and Sandro (Adriano Giannini) as they walk, talk, and drink wine in France.  During one of those bantering sessions at a Parisian cafe, they meet fellow expat Aubrey (the utterly charming Carrie MacLemore) when they see her crying alone, due to her disappointment with Paris so far.  Naturally, they immediately recruit her into their ranks and invite her to a party thrown by French bigwig Fritz (Freddy Asblom).

Like all Stillman affairs, dialogue is king in The Cosmopolitans.  This is the kind of pilot where the first half of the episode mostly consists of the four main characters telling stories to one another about people who either appear only in flashbacks, much later in the episode, or not at all.  But what makes it work is that it's funny, funny, funny.  The spirit of Oscar Wilde lives on in Whit Stillman, who buries in these characters' verbose musings some devastatingly sharp lines.  No shortage of witticisms and drollery will be found here.  He also gets alot of mileage out of lines that only get funnier the more they are repeated (i.e. "Fritz is a ridiculous pipsqueak!," "Her coat's not gold...").  The dialogue has this hypnotic circular quality to it, calling back upon itself and twisting into an endless series of knots.  There's a snap, rhythm, and fluidity with which these scenes are strung together.

And yet, there's also an underlying sadness to the proceedings.  It's clear that these expatriates are trying so hard to integrate themselves into French culture because they feel terribly lonely.  Though they distract themselves with parties and wine, the moments where their melancholy about past failures and disappointments poke through are the ones that make the strongest impression.  The Cosmopolitans, at least based on the pilot, is a show about people finding community in their shared outsiderdom.  The final scene -- where Jimmy, Sandro, and Aubrey, after having been cast out onto the streets when Fritz removes them from his party, share a tiny smile on the cab ride home -- is enough to make hearts sing.

Many TV critics who I like and respect were left perplexed by this pilot.  They stated it was formless, odd, and light on laughs.  Some of them got caught up on the fact that it's incomplete -- Whit Stillman wrote this as an hourlong episode but didn't like the second half, so Amazon told him he could just shoot the first half and they'd air that as the pilot.  But you know what?  I say "screw structure"!  When a pilot is as funny, razor-sharp, and delightful as this is, it's hard to complain.  Plus, it feels like a proper first chapter to a longer story, and an intriguing introduction at that.

I decided to write about this episode as a part of my Episode of the Week feature, and it's a good thing that I'm not doing a Pilot Talk on it, because I'm not sure what I'd grade it.  Honestly, I'm leaning towards an A.  Sure, it's got a strange structure, but it's also refreshing in its oddness.  Shows that are trying something different should be greeted with more than bored sighs and raised eyebrows.  But even aside from questions of the show's uniqueness, it's also just an incredibly enchanting piece of television.  I've watched it twice now (and I'm considering a third) and I don't know that I've enjoyed any other pilot in 2014 more than this one.

Of course, such is the nature with the Amazon Pilot Series, that this may just exist as a single entity, never to be continued.  Amazon decides which of the pilots it wants to pick up, and even though the amount of shows that make the cut have increased in each cycle -- two shows in the first, three in the second -- it's still up in the air for The Cosmopolitans.  Fans can take a survey and give feedback on each show, but as much as Amazon likes to give off the impression that our thoughts matter, I suspect that series are granted more episodes based on unrelated criteria.  Still, I hope they search their hearts and realize that The Cosmopolitans should absolutely be picked up for a full season.  It's just too good and too special to let go.


  1. I don't think Fritz is supposed to be French. German played by a Swede?

    1. Ah, you might be right about Fritz. It seemed like he was trying to do a French accent and since it's set in France, I assumed he was a native. But "Fritz" is a pretty German name.