Not-so-strange bedfellows of Amazon's 'Alpha House'

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 22, 2013 - 3:16 PM

“Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau pulls his punches in the political comedy “Alpha House,” the debut series from the online retailer.

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Mark Consuelos, John Goodman, Matt Malloy and Clark Johnson in “Alpha House.”

A desperate politician recently got pinned down by Stephen Colbert.

In an attempt to prove his masculinity to voters, Sen. Louis Laffer, R-Nev., agreed to an on-air wrestling match with the goading host. The result: a public-relations disaster that further dampened Laffer’s milquetoast reputation.

The bit didn’t actually occur on “The Colbert Report,” but in this age of crack-lovin’ mayors and junk-snappin’ representatives, it very well could have. It’s a scene from “Alpha House,” Amazon Studios’ first original series, and if it is any indication of the online retailer’s ambitions, the company is going to give Netflix a run for subscribers’ money.

The series, written by “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau, centers on four Republican senators who share a townhouse and a dossier of troubles.

North Carolina’s Gil John Biggs (John Goodman), who sleeps in the shower and appears to be one Twinkie away from a massive heart attack, discovers that the Duke basketball coach wants his seat, which means that Biggs’ plans to fuel his campaign on whiskey have suddenly dried up.

Pennsylvania’s Robert Bettencourt (Clark Johnson) is eighth in seniority, but his power is being threatened by the ethics committee. Florida’s Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos) has one eye on the White House and the other on anything in a skirt. And then there’s Laffer (Matt Malloy), a certified scaredy cat. The only thing that frightens him more than an upcoming visit to Kabul is the chance that he might lose his cushy job.

If this all sounds like Political Satire 101, you’re right. In the initial three episodes, Trudeau ignores any real controversies, challenges or crises. He seems to suggest that the hardest thing to do in Washington is to get Goodman’s character out of bed. Trudeau’s main point seems to be that politics turns its players into children. When Guzman begs Bettencourt not to gossip about a dalliance in a cloak room, he gets a succinct answer.

“Too late,” Bettencourt says. “It’s high school.”

Like “Veep,” this show rests on the theory that the nation’s capital is run by hordes of mean girls who only care about keeping their toys. That HBO series, however, is much more complex and biting, as it puts Julia-Louis Dreyfus through a Rube Goldberg machine that seems designed to lead eventually to the loony bin. “Veep” is a hilarious gift wrapped in a bow of red tape; “Alpha” is a mainstream sitcom that mines humor out of an anti-sodomy award that looks like a phallic symbol.

Trudeau was much more ambitious with “Tanner ’88,” his 1988 collaboration with Robert Altman that examined the ethical minefields of a presidential campaign. “Alpha” has a lot more laughs, but it lacks “Tanner’s” search for truth, heart and substance in politics.

Maybe I’m asking too much from Trudeau. “Alpha” offers plenty of wit and clever touches, like the sugar bowl on the breakfast table that the roomies keep filled with flag pins.

Goodman, as usual, is a treat, rumbling through hallowed halls like an overstuffed Eeyore, and Johnson, who has done more directing than acting these days, shows he still has chops, squeezing just the right amount of ooze into his slick senator’s lines.

“Alpha” may not have the gravitas of Netflix’s first big project, “House of Cards,” but it’s getting people’s interest. It was No. 1 among TV shows watched on Amazon last weekend, and second only to James Bond’s “Skyfall” among all videos. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the fact that the first three episodes are free. The remaining eight episodes will be released on a week-to-week basis and will only be available to members of Amazon Prime, the retailer’s premium service, which costs $79 a year.

The combination of “Alpha” and free shipping may not be enough to convince you to cough up that kind of dough, but there’s much more in the works from Amazon Studios, including several children’s programs and potential series from “X-Files” creator Chris Carter and some of the writers behind “Tremé.” If the fledgling production company can encourage top talent to take more chances, Amazon Prime just might make next year’s holiday shopping list.

 

Neal.Justin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @NealJustin

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