Some Thoughts on Alpha House

alpha-house

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.

Odds and Ends – Almost June edition

Sorry folks…I don’t have much in way of a snappy intro this week. I don’t know if all this dreary and rainy weather is sapping my enthusiasm or if it is just because I’ve been so busy, but the creative juices just aren’t flowing like normal today. So I’ll skip the long intro – that’s not what you’re here for anyway – and just get to the main event. Enjoy your biweekly roundup of all things pop!

  • Congrats to Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul and his new bride, who were married last weekend. He seems like a very down to earth guy. We should be pals.
  • Gael Garcia Bernal will star in Jon Stewart’s directorial debut.
  • I had no idea that people were this into Vin Diesel – 14 pieces of fan art featuring the actor. Da Vinci’s Diesel is easily my favorite:

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  • Sounds like earlier reports might have been incorrect – Sam Mendes appears to be back in the picture to direct the next Bond movie. Yay! He did a great job with Skyfall.
  • Oh NBC – you shouldn’t be spelling the name of one of your stars wrong in the credits:

Smash

 

  • I posted this on the blog’s Facebook page, but it bears repeating – Jimmy Fallon’s Game of Desks skit:

 

  • Will Smith and his son Jaden reunited with some familiar faces during this appearance on The Graham Norton Show:

I’ve seen enough clips from this show to make me think I should be tuning in. They seem to have a lot of fun.

  • Ellen Degeneres had a mini Friends reunion:

 

  •  A LEGO Lord Voldemort goes wand shopping:

 

  • If the measure of success is having a walking tour and adult film based on your show, than Girls has definitely made it.
  • A new Kelly Clarkson video has been released:

 

  • Ke$ha drank her own pee on her reality show, which got the Parents Television Council all up in arms.
  • I’m very excited for this – Starz has announced the debut date for their show The White Queen, based on Philippa Gregory best-selling novel series The Cousins’ War.
  • These guys did a homemade version of the Clock Tower Scene in Back to the Future:

 

  • I have been to exactly zero of Esquire’s best bars in America. That is kind of a tragedy. I’ll have to add these to my travel folder along with restaurants from Man vs. Food and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
  • This is nice – after fans bought gifts from his registry, Washington Redskins QB RG3 sent them handwritten thank you notes. That’s better than some of my friends have done – I’m still waiting for thank you notes from a handful of weddings over the years. So tacky.
  • This 4 year old knows more about Marvel Superhero trivia than I ever will:

 

  • There’s going to be a Paula Deen museum. Sadly, it is in Albany, GA not Albany, NY.
  • My beloved tolerated Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo has been done up to look like the home of the Giants for a movie. I find that kind of insulting; it’s one thing to be a stand in for a fake team, but quite another to be made to look like another NFL team plays there.
  • Ryan Gosling’s latest film was booed at the Cannes Film Fesival.
  • Uproxx has the top 100 network shows for the 2012-13 television season. Interesting that several shows that were cancelled actually had higher ratings than Community (including Happy Endings).

And as always, we wrap up with the mashups and uppercuts:

  •  A mashup of Daft Punk and Soul Train:

 

  • Not to be outdone, a Mad Men/Daft Punk mashup:

 

  • And to complete the Daft Punk trifecta: “Get Lucky” played on the banjo:

 

  • Beer of Thrones:

I can assure you this doesn’t happen when you drink the actual Game of Thrones beer.

 

  • A supercut of dancing in movies:

 

  • A Minecraft made trailer for Man of Steel:

 

  • A supercut of video games and arcades in film:

 

 

  • Jane Austen’s Fight Club:

 

  • A mashup of the theme from Space Jam and Titanic greatly improves the latter:

 

  • And finally, since Memorial Day weekend marks the kickoff of summer, a remix of summer-themed songs:

Amazon Pilots

A while ago, I mentioned that Amazon.com was trying something new and different: they would be dipping their toe in the world of scripted original content by ordering pilots for several comedy series, but they would be crowdsourcing the approval process by allowing on-line viewers to determine which shows were ultimately developed for series. They would do the same thing for a handful of shows aimed at children. Last Friday, Amazon posted the pilots for eight potential comedies on their website and made them free* to watch and then vote on. As someone who often thinks that I could do a better job than most network executives, I of course had to give them a look.

The good news is that none of them were straight up terrible; I may not have been drawn to all of them but I at least could see why Amazon decided to at least greenlight these concepts to pilot. Honestly, they were much better overall than I expected them to be for this venture. I was surprised by the star power associated with the pilots; while some of the shows are full of relative unknowns, many of the pilots feature actors that are established and household names. You don’t necessary expect to see John Goodman in a pilot for an on-line series, but there he was.

However, despite the fact that there weren’t any clear clunkers in the bunch, I can’t say that any of these pilots really blew me away either. I definitely enjoyed some more than others, but if none of these shows were developed to series I don’t think I’d be tremendously disappointed. When I first saw the pilot for Lost, I remember being fully engaged and 100% in on the show.  I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. I didn’t have anything close to that feeling with any of these pilots, but to be fair I think that my experience with Lost was the exception to the rule. As I’ve mentioned before, pilots – especially for comedies – are notoriously difficult to pull off and are not always good indicators of what a show will turn out to be. Parks and Recreation took 7 or 8 episodes to find its voice; I had bailed on the show after a few episodes, deeming it dreadful, and had to be persuaded to give it another chance. It wound up being one of my favorite shows, but a rocky start meant that I almost wrote the show off. So a bad pilot might grow into a good show and vice versa. Pilots are tricky business, so with that caveat in mind, here are some quick thoughts about the Amazon shows (in alphabetical order):

Alpha House

The fact that Alpha House was my favorite pilot of the bunch will probably come as no surprise to loyal readers as it takes place in the world of politics and that happens to be one of pop culture sweet spots. This is the pilot that has the most star power of the bunch; it not only stars the aforementioned John Goodman, but the cast also includes Mark Consuelos (Mr. Kelly Ripa), Clark Johnson (Homicide, The Wire), Matt Malloy (an instantly recognizable character actor who has been in everything) and even a brief appearance by one Bill Murray. The show follows four Congressmen who share a house on Capitol Hill and while making jokes about politicians and government isn’t exactly difficult, the pilot did a nice job of establishing these characters and setting the table for what a potential series would look like. The strong cast certainly made the most of the material and I was interested to see where the story would go.

 

Betas

Betas is about four friends trying to form a start-up in Silicon Valley; they believe that they have the next big app in BRB, which connects people of similar interests. There aren’t many familiar faces in Betas; other than an appearance by Ed Beagley Jr. (and Moby), the only person I recognized was Jon Daly (the comic, not the golfer). While I thought supporting characters played by Daly and Charlie Saxton were amusing, I didn’t find the leads (Joe Dinicol and Karan Soni) and their relationship at all interesting. I paid far more attention when they weren’t on screen. I also thought Betas felt like it was trying too hard to fit current trends with its focus on apps development. It has the potential to be a show that feel very dated very quickly.

 

Browsers

Browsers was among my least favorite of the pilots. This is a workplace comedy that is clearly based on the Huffington Post and Bebe Neuwirth is channeling Arianna Huffington, which explains the ridiculous accent. The show focuses on four new interns hired at the fictional Gush and has the characters spontaneously break into song. A lot. It is kind of like Glee, though it features all original songs rather than covers. Unfortunately, the lyrics to those original songs aren’t very good; I’m fairly certain I could come up with something better and I have zero musical talent (go ask my 4th grade violin teacher). The cast definitely has some pipes, but there were too many inane songs in the pilot and not enough actual character development. I knew I was out on this one within the first few minutes.

 

Dark Minions

Dark Minions is a stop action animation science fiction comedy about two temps working for an evil intergalactic conglomerate. They don’t share their bosses politics – or ambition – but a job is a job, until a romance develops with a rebel fighter on another planet. The voices of the main characters may sound familiar as they are voiced by actors who have recurring roles on The Big Bang Theory. Dark Minions is not 100% finished; stop action animation is very expensive and time consuming, so some of the scenes are done with rougher two dimensional animation. Enough is completed, however, to give you a good idea of what the show will look like visually. I liked Dark Minions and think it has some potential if it goes to series; while it wasn’t laugh out loud funny, I did find myself smiling at several points during the episode. I think there might be a fun show here.

 

Onion News Empire

The Onion seems bound and determined to have a TV show; Onion News Empire is their third attempt (following Onion News Network and Onion SportsDome) and I think that this time might indeed be the charm. The premise of their earlier shows was a fake news/sports show and the format became tiresome pretty quickly. The Onion’s satirical articles and headlines work well in print, but there wasn’t enough there to sustain an entire show, especially when we already have some fake news programs that were so much better (The Daily Show and The Colbert Report). Onion News Empire shifts the focus; while there are still segments of a fake news program, the bulk of the show is about the behind the scenes action of the news program. It is still a parody, but instead of relying on parodying the actual news, they are parodying the networks that cover the news; think of it as a parody of HBO’s The Newsroom. I thought the pilot was a little uneven in spots, but it has a great cast (Jeffrey Tambor, Cheyenne Jackson and Chris Masterson) and the media is always prime for some parody.

 

Supanatural

Supanatural is an animated program very much in the vein of programming that you would see during the Adult Swim block of programming on the Cartoon Network. It’s weird and absurd, but also pretty funny. While I didn’t think the pilot did a great job of explaining the premise, Supanatural follows two street smart friends who defend humanity from supernatural forces, when they aren’t working their minimum wage jobs at the mall. There are lots of great one-liners in the pilot, though I wonder if this is a premise that can sustain an entire series. The jokes mainly derive from the contrast between some sassy women who also are humanity’s only hope. It’s just wacky enough to work, though, and there are a lot of talented people attached to this show (Kristen Schaal is a producer), so I’d be curious to see what they would do creatively if given a series order.

 

Those Who Can’t

My teacher friends will probably get a kick out of Those Who Can’t, which follows a trio of male teachers who aren’t that much mature than their students. The show stars members of the comedy group The Grawlix and probably does the best job of giving the viewer an idea of what a regular episode of this series would feel like. The pilot is very economical and fleshes out the characters quickly, so it can spend more time on the plot (in the first episode, they attempt to frame a jerky student for drug possession). Lots of stand-up comics are affiliated with the show, which I think is a real strength and speaks well for the show if it goes forward. These are characters that I’d like to spend more time with.

 

Zombieland

As far as I know, Zombieland is the only one of these pilots that was actually originally developed for network TV. Fox passed on the pilot, based on the movie of the same name that starred Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone. I quite enjoyed Zombieland the movie, but unfortunately the pilot for the TV show just feels like a poor man’s version; it is the same basic plot, just with less famous people in the leads. The pilot doesn’t do much to establish how the TV show will be different from the movie going forward. I just felt like I was watching a recreation of something I’d already seen. Without its own identity, I’m not sure what this show is bringing to the table. Could be good if they keep the fun and quirky vibe of the movie with some new and interesting content, but there just wasn’t enough here that was original.

Alpha House, Onion News Empire and Those Who Can’t are definitely my favorite three of the bunch. Alpha House probably has the best chance at going to series, simply because of the name recognition of the actors attached to it. Some of the other pilots definitely were “on the bubble” for me; I saw enough promise there that they could be interesting going forward, but they were definitely diamonds in the rough. However, my tastes and the tastes of most Americans don’t always line up neatly, so I’ll be curious to see what shows are actually selected to be developed. I don’t know that any of these programs are real game changers, but with Amazon now joining Netflix and cable networks not known for their original programming (see History Channel and A&E) in the television marketplace, things are certainly beginning to get interesting.

 

*with a one month trial of Amazon Prime