Primed for Comedy

Amazon launches into the original-series world with its D.C. comedy Alpha House.

Alpha House.
Alpha House, yet another entry in the recent boom of political series.

Courtesy of Amazon

Earlier this year, Amazon made pilots of eight comedies available for streaming and asked viewers to vote on which they most wanted to see become series. The motley bunch of shows, many with a DIY flair, included two cartoons, a Zombieland spin-off, and a musical loosely based on the operations of a fictional Huffington Post. One of the series, Alpha House—created by Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, starring John Goodman and featuring a cameo from Bill Murray sobbing into his electric toothbrush—was not like the others, by enough polish to shine all of Congress’ shoes. (Disclaimer: Slate is the online home of Doonesbury.)

Alpha House, about the lives of four cohabitating senators, is Amazon’s first attempt to establish itself as a provider of quality original content. (Next week Amazon debuts another new comedy, Betas, about twentysomethings launching a tech startup.) Friday, the first three episodes of Alpha will be viewable by everyone; the rest will be available to Prime customers a week at a time, a split-the-difference-between-Netflix-and-everyone-else strategy. Though Amazon surely hopes Alpha House will help distinguish it from competitors like Netflix, it is doing so by closely following the Netflix playbook. In February, Netflix signaled its seriousness about original programming with House of Cards, a highly pedigreed series set in Washington, D.C., that at least superficially looked and felt like it could air on premium cable. Alpha House is a highly pedigreed series—Wanda Sykes, Haley Joel Osment, and Stephen Colbert make cameos—set in Washington, D.C., that superficially looks and feels like it could air on cable. Like House of Cards, Alpha House announces the arrival of another Internet-only outfit that can make solid enough programming. But less than a year after Netflix cleared it, that already feels like a low bar.

Alpha House takes the sitcom-ready plot outlined in a 2007 New York Times story about the roommate habits of politicians in D.C. as its starting point. Away from their families, Republican Sens. Gil John Biggs (Goodman), a North Carolina coaching legend who refuses to campaign; Robert Bettencourt (Clark Johnson), a long-term politician from Pennsylvania facing indictment charges; Florida rookie Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos), a Cuban-American playboy and sure future presidential candidate; and Nevada’s effete, maybe gay Louis Laffer (Matt Malloy) share a home near the Capitol. It comes complete with a bowl of flag pins on the kitchen island and breakfast conversation like “Being a prominent critic of the homosexual agenda: sounds pretty last election cycle to me.”

The last few years have seen a boom in political series. Where there was once just The West Wing, there is now Veep, Parks and Recreation, Scandal, The Good Wife, and House of Cards. Even Hulu’s first attempt to get into original programming, the low-key and pleasant Battleground, was set on the campaign trail. Alpha House shares with these shows a cynical understanding of day-to-day political machinations. (Even the sunny Parks and Rec has a dark view of governance: Leslie Knope, an idealistic politician if there ever was one, has had to horse trade and compromise with unethical colleagues and is currently facing a recall from an idiotic electorate.) On Alpha House, no one is an idealist or appears to even have ideas: Everyone is perpetually in crisis mode, or more accurately, in don’t-cause-a-crisis mode.  

Alpha House is distinct in one regard: Rather than satirize “Washington culture” in general, as with Veep, or claim a political allegiance that doesn’t quite jibe with reality, as with Scandal’s Republican president (who in the real world would probably be a Democrat) or with House of Cards’ Democratic congressman (who in the real world would probably be a Republican), Alpha House, like Trudeau’s other work, states its politics plainly. The four protagonists are Republicans, dealing with the current state of the GOP. John Kerry is the secretary of state. Obama is pulling out of Afghanistan. Laffer is being primaried from the right by a man named Al Hickock, who keeps dog-whistling that Laffer’s gay. The senators casually filibuster a clean energy act. Biggs and Bettencourt refuse to be seen talking to a Democrat, played by Cynthia Nixon, who tells them that “stupid and stupid’s mutant cousin are all that’s left of your party.” (Alpha House does do a little reality hedging: Its Republican senators include a Cuban-American, an African-American, and a maybe-closeted Mormon, a more diverse sampling than a random senatorial foursome.)

Yet clearly positioning the characters on the right doesn’t make much of a difference. Trudeau’s politics are liberal, but when Biggs is being played by John Goodman, he may have a condescending attitude toward gays and women, but it’s impossible not to like him a little bit. Alpha House is about men caught up in a crazy-making system; even with all of its concrete details, that means it feels very similar to the (for now) much funnier Veep, which is also focused on the relentlessly reductive ass-covering nature of public office. (When will someone take on, what seems to me, the great white whale of contemporary political satire: the true believer, the ideological zealot, the devout tea partier? I’m imagining, like, Enlightened, but with a hero sharing Ted Cruz’s beliefs.) Alpha House may be Amazon’s first original program, but it doesn’t feel all that original.