Both Netflix and Amazon turned to D.C. for their first big ventures into original programming. What better signal of your substance and relevance (if not, perhaps, your youthful appeal) than to skewer the world of American politics in your inaugural series? Netflix had its drama “House of Cards,” with a movie star lead in Kevin Spacey, a big time director attached in David Fincher and an up-and-coming writer with a campaign background in Beau Willimon — elements that were carefully selected and paired with some sleekly expensive-looking production value to make for an incontestable show of seriousness.
Amazon’s first original show, “Alpha House,” is a comedy, so seriousness isn’t an aim, but it’s no less concerned with distinguishing itself as both worthy of being compared with and also freer than traditional television. It may not have the director of “The Social Network” on board, but it does have “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau, whose screen ventures include the political mockumentaries “Tanner ’88” and sequel “Tanner on Tanner,” both directed by Robert Altman.
It has as the biggest name in its ensemble cast John Goodman, who plays Gil John Biggs, a slovenly Republican senator from North Carolina who would doubtless amuse Frank Underwood, the meticulous South Caroline Democratic House Majority Whip Spacey plays on his own internet TV show. And it looks good — like real TV, from the overcrowded home its main characters share to the bustling halls of Congress.
“Alpha House” has a premise that’s self-consciously sitcomesque — four senators rooming together in a D.C. row house, some single, some with families back home. Introducing a screening of the first three episodes at their premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night, Trudeau noted that in the New York Times story that inspired the series, one of a set of real-life senatorial housemates observed that “Everybody in the world says they’re going to do a television series based on us. But then they realize that the story of four middle-aged men, with no sex and violence, is not going to last two weeks.” Trudeau has duly added some of both elements, but it’s the idea of powerful men reverting to post-collegiate bachelorhood living that clearly has captured his heart, and the show is most comfortable with domestic hijinks, like Gil John’s routine of taking a morning nap in the shower or the handy sugar jar full of American flag lapel pins on the counter.
It’s the political side of “Alpha House” that feels both stiltedly grown up and also, at least in these first episodes, a little soft. Trudeau’s chosen to make three of his four senators old school Republicans who are a little lost in a new age of Tea Party members and bipartisan communication being a no. It’s rich territory, but it’s rarely treated that way, the series instead often taking a broader out than landing any targeted jab at our current political reality.
There is, for instance, an ongoing gag about the oblivious Louis Laffer’s (Matt Malloy) sexuality that begins with him oversharing while accepting an award from the “Council for Normal Marriage” and that always seems to be missing a punchline — is the basis of his character really going to be left at a halfhearted gay joke? Similarly, the newest and youngest housemate, the ambitious Florida freshman Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos), would seem to provide an opportunity to get at the right’s courting of the Latino vote, not to mention Marco Rubio, but instead he’s drawn so far only as a teflon ladies’ man with a lot of ambition.
It’s Goodman and Clark Johnson as the veterans who feel the most solid, both in their characters and their relationship. Goodman’s Biggs is a particularly lovable creation, a former college sports star enjoying his congressional career as a sort of lengthy, very public retirement, and one who’s perturbed to find his place threatened when he faces a real political opponent for the first time in ages. More mountainous than ever, Goodman’s adept with physical comedy — the shower nap is a highlight — but he’s also deft with conveying a character who’s far from an idiot, but who likes his perks and his long, whiskey-fueled lunches more than he does the work itself. He and the rest of the cast are joined by some passing famous faces — one that turns up in the opening sequence of the pilot that’s best left a surprise, and others like Stephen Colbert (as himself) and Cynthia Nixon and Wanda Sykes as fellow members of congress who turn up in the course of regular D.C. life.
“Alpha House” isn’t entirely success, but it’s certainly watchable, and comedies tend to take more time to find their center than dramas. But Amazon’s choice to kick off its originals with something so innocuous does underline the difference in its approach as compared to Netflix.
Amazon will stream the first three episodes of “Alpha House” for free starting this Friday, November 15th, with the subsequent eight installments rolling out after for Amazon Prime members only — but while “Alpha House” is perfectly pleasant and smart enough, there’s little urgency to it, and no notable qualities you can see encouraging anyone to sign up for a yearly membership so they can see more of it. That’s a tough ask for comedies in general, given their tendencies toward the episodic, and more specifically for a series like this one. “Alpha House” feels like a soft launch for a major company getting into a new arena of original content — get free shipping, and hey, here’s a bonus sitcom for you to check out.