The New Year is supposed to bring a fresh start, but in culture, the 2015 headlines are starting to share a subject with those from 2014. Last year, Woody Allen was in the news because of renewed attention to sexual assault allegations against him. Now he’s back: Allen will be creating a television show for Amazon’s streaming service. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The show is a big deal for Allen enthusiasts, since Allen previously wrote for variety shows and made television movies but hasn’t done an original series. And it’s yet another opportunity to debate what the response should be to high-profile people who are accused but not charged with sexual assault and sexual abuse; last year saw renewed public attention to the accusation that Allen abused Dylan Farrow when he was in a relationship with her mother, Mia. But maybe we should ask another question as well: In an era when streaming services are telling so many groundbreaking stories and doing it so well, isn’t a Woody Allen television show a conservative step back?
“That Amazon’s willing to team up with Allen despite the ongoing anger from those who take [Dylan] Farrow’s side in this controversy is an illustration of just what a creative coup the studio thinks the deal is. (And also shows how different the Allen and Cosby scandals have been treated; NBC eventually pulled the plug on plans for a new Cosby series.),” Alan Sepinwall wrote in a deft analysis of the move. “Professionally, Allen’s a legend, and also someone who has long played hard-to-get in his career. Signing him to create, write and direct a TV series is a huge get for Amazon, and perhaps an even bigger sign that the operation has arrived than this week’s Golden Globe wins for the wonderful ‘Transparent.’ ”
The deal certainly proves that Amazon can sell itself as a good outlet to artists, and that it has money to spend to lock down a figure such as Allen, who as Sepinwall writes, probably wouldn’t have been willing to participate in Amazon’s traditional bake-off to see which pilots will merit a full-series order. But even if Allen (who has faced allegations in one case) is being treated more deferentially than Cosby (who has been named by dozens of women), Amazon’s and NBC’s work with both men feels rather similar, and rather like hedging.
Rather than elevating new voices, as Amazon did previously with filmmaker Jill Soloway and her groundbreaking series “Transparent,” a Woody Allen television show feels like insurance. It’s an attempt to get his existing fans to sample Amazon’s streaming offerings, rather than as proof that Amazon can do things other outlets can’t. NBC’s and Netflix’s deals with Bill Cosby were intended to do work in a very similar way, luring viewers back to NBC’s primetime and encouraging Cosby and comedy fans to think of Netflix is the place to go for stand-up specials.
Part of the supposed appeal is that both men have relatively consistent concerns across the arc of their careers. Cosby’s stand-up may be edgier than his sitcoms or his motivational speaking career, but the latter two have been firmly focused on Cosby’s prescription for black empowerment and elevation.
Allen has shown a wider range of concerns, especially early in his career when he told stories about revolutionaries (“Bananas”) and technology (“Sleeper”). He has created terrific roles for women, most recently in “Blue Jasmine.” Allen has gotten great performances out of so many people, including Alec Baldwin in “To Rome With Love.” He has treated Jewishness and class in all sorts of interesting ways; I dearly love his “Match Point.”
But Allen returns over and over again to the same concerns about nebbishy men and their sexual satisfaction, often with much younger women. That defined one of his most enduring movies, “Manhattan,” and it’s the premise behind the film he is working on for release this year. Maybe Allen is trolling people who criticize his current marriage and believe Dylan Farrow. Maybe it’s truly an obsession he can’t escape. And whether that’s what attracts you to his work or the obstacle you have to overcome in returning to his movies, these themes are a core part of Allen’s brand.
Maybe Amazon has bought itself the next “Blue Jasmine,” or “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” or “Match Point,” all of which stand among Allen’s better projects in recent years. Or maybe the streaming service will end up with his latest “Scoop” or “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.” As of this writing, Allen apparently has no idea what story he wants to tell, and Amazon seems to be okay with that, as long as Allen can fit the company into his already frenetic schedule, which has produced such uneven results.
It’s dandy if Amazon wants to make breaking new ground its business model, and I hope whatever money it makes off Allen supports many other Jill Soloways in years to come. But signing Woody Allen and giving him carte blanche isn’t proof that Amazon is a trailblazer. Instead, it’s proof that even the companies that want to lead us into pop culture’s future are anxiously looking over their shoulders back at the past.