Back in April, Amazon unveiled six pilots and allowed viewers to vote to determine which shows would be brought to series by the online retailer, their first venture into original programming. It was an interesting model that gave the people more of a voice in the pilot process; usually these decisions are made by the suits at the network, who don’t necessarily know what the people want. As I wrote when the pilots were unveiled, some of these pilots were pretty dreadful, but I thought a few of them were viable as a series. Amazon shoppers at least partially agreed with me and selected Alpha House as one of the two pilots that would receive an order for additional episodes (they also selected Betas, which I was less enamored with. You can’t get them all right.).
Alpha House follows the exploits of 4 Republican senators who share a house while they are in Washington D.C.: Gil John Biggs (John Goodman), a longtime incumbent who for the first time faces a re-election challenge; Robert Bettencourt (Clark Johnson), a man with an ongoing ethics investigation; Louis Laffer (Matt Malloy), also facing a re-election fight from a more macho challenger; and their newest roommate Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos), who is a ladies man that aspires to become President. None of these men seem to be particularly adept at their jobs, often opting for flash over substance. For example, they take a trip to Afghanistan to visit the troops more for the photo opportunity and to escape their problems than out of any real burning desire to know what is actually going on over there. The show is written by Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury fame and features a lot of famous faces dropping by; Stephen Colbert features prominently into the plot of the second episode.
I’m a soft touch for any show that delves into the world of politics, so it’s not surprising that I liked Alpha House more than most of the other pilots. I also think that John Goodman can do know wrong; he may appear in some questionable projects, but he is always stellar in them. The guy crushes it every time. I’m also a fan of Clark Johnson from his days on Homicide: Life on the Street, a woefully underappreciated show that gave birth to the Detective John Munch character that Richard Belzer played on Law & Order: SVU. Clark is not only a talented actor, but he’s a great director as well. I even have some affinity for Mark Consuelos as well, mostly because he is just really nice to look at (the fact that he’s a pretty good actor is just a bonus). Add this all together and I should be totally in the tank for Alpha House.
After now seeing three episodes of the show, however, I can’t say that I am totally on board. It’s a fine show and these are actors that I like spending time with, but I can’t say that the show is really all that funny. There are some individual moments of the show that are amusing or made me smile, but there weren’t enough of those strung together to say that this is a great comedy. I still see the same potential that I saw in the pilot and the cast certainly has the talent to take this show to the next level, but it just isn’t there yet.
Part of the problem is that there are already a lot of shows out there that do a better job of looking at the world of Washington. House of Cards isn’t a comedy – though it has its moments as well – but does a nice job of immersing you in the behind the scenes world of politics. House of Cards definitely shows that not everyone is in politics to actually help people – if they do so that is just a happy side effect – and that politicians may not be whom they appear to be. I don’t think these observations are novel concepts to most voters, but the stories are so interesting and compelling that House of Cards is very entertaining. Alpha House’s biggest competition, however, is Veep on HBO. Helmed by the great Julia-Louis-Dreyfus, Veep excels in portraying the total absurdity of politics and showcases an entire staff of people who are not necessarily good at their jobs (including the Vice President). The show is tremendously biting and funny; it is what Alpha House wishes it was. The Senators in Alpha House aren’t nearly as fully developed as the staffers on Veep. Perhaps that will happen over time, but the characters on Alpha House are not particularly well rounded.
The fact that Alpha House decided to tell the story of 4 somewhat bumbling Republican senators may also be a problem for the show. While you have to take on-line comments with a grain of salt, a lot of people seem to be turned off by a show that is making fun of their party. Most of the comments dismiss the show as mocking the GOP and their beliefs. Trudeau’s pedigree doesn’t exactly disprove that allegation. Veep may also feature incompetent politicians, but it never identifies the political affiliation of its characters. With the partisan gulf that exists currently in this country, I’m sure that people could find fault with anything; this is not to dismiss the criticism of the show, but some people see political slander in just about everything. The show definitely lampoons these four Senators, but these are also the only four politicians that the show has really shown the audience. I believe we’ve only seen one Democrat to date on the program and it was a small part (played by Cynthia Nixon, so you have to assume she’ll turn up again). So while I’m not disagreeing that the show definitely doesn’t portray the Republicans featured in the best light – though they are shown to generally to be likable and not evil – I’d put the pitchforks down until we get a better sample size of how they treat all politicians. I also think more of these political sins would be ignored if the show was simply funnier. When you aren’t laughing, you have more time to analyze.
Despite these flaws, I’m still going to give Alpha House a chance. It isn’t a bad show, per se, but it also has not proven itself to be must see TV. I could easily see myself falling way behind on the episodes and then simply forgetting about the show; it’s a fine way to kill 20 minutes, but I don’t know that I’ll make any real effort to remember when new episodes are posted unless the show finds it voice and becomes less about caricature and more about character. With my busy pop culture schedule, mildly amusing isn’t going to keep you on my priority viewing list. This is Amazon’s first foray into original programming, so some bump are to be expected. They aren’t going to nail it right out of the gate, so there is a learning curve. There is a lot of humor to be found in the world of politics, yet Alpha House just isn’t all that funny. I hope it gets there; it would be a shame to squander this great cast and a premise that has real possibility.
The first three episodes of Alpha House are available for free on Amazon. New episodes will be posted every week, but will only be accessible to Amazon Prime members.