Stepping up into the big leagues in both the same way and same venue as Netflix, Amazon’s “Alpha House” is a polished comedy — not a game-changer, but the kind of show a premium service should be happy to have. Created by Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau and loosely inspired by a real house where congressmen live together in D.C., the half-hour series will get a “zero” rating from all the expected conservative mouthpieces but provides instant credibility to the service’s original-programming efforts. Whether or not viewers choose to subscribe to Amazon Prime in order to continue watching beyond the three-episode free preview, perception-wise, consider this primary battle won.
The show cleverly kicks off with one resident of the house (a cameo too good to spoil) oversleeping on the day he’s scheduled to turn himself in to the Dept. of Justice, which roommate Gil John Biggs (John Goodman), a former football coach from North Carolina, attributes to “piss-poor staff work.”
That leaves an open bed in the residence shared by Republicans Gil John, who is worrying about a primary fight; Louis Laffer (Matt Malloy), a Nevada senator with image problems, facing his own Tea Party challenge; and Robert Bettencourt (Clark Johnson), a senator from Pennsylvania who shrewdly knows how to turn a filibuster into a fundraising opportunity.
In terms of skewering conservative stereotypes, Trudeau helps himself to plenty of low-hanging fruit, such as having Louis collect the Say No to Sodomy Award from The Council for Normal Marriage. (Alas, he creates an uncomfortable moment by spelling out other specific sexual activities he also rejects.)
Joining the group, meanwhile, is Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos), a womanizing Floridian of Cuban extraction, adding more diversity to the house, frankly, than the present Republican caucus. Minus the skirt chasing — which includes a reference to having taken a date to a funeral — Guzman is pretty obviously intended to be a Marco Rubio surrogate.
Although the show includes cameos by the likes of Cynthia Nixon and Wanda Sykes, “Alpha House” derives its strength from the playful hazing and camaraderie among the central quartet, as well as their overworked staffs and unseen spouses, who (in Gil John’s case, at least) appear to be running the show from afar. Initially, Malloy actually has the meatiest material, including a hilarious second-episode bit in which he appears on “The Colbert Report” as what amounts to a test of manhood.
Granted, this isn’t likely to cause the same stir in media circles as “House of Cards,” and not everything works, including a clunky subplot that has Louis in particular fretting over a planned trip to Afghanistan.
From a marketing standpoint, though, Amazon (which will follow “Alpha House” with “Betas,” apparently determined to work its way through the Greek alphabet) has put a solid first foot forward — using Goodman, steeped in a deep-fried Southern drawl, to lend star wattage to the series, and politics to garner additional exposure beyond the usual entertainment outlets. (OK, maybe just MSNBC.)
“We’re interested in something that looks like victory if we don’t turn tail,” Goodman’s senator tells a military briefer.
Like a lot of fledgling programmers, Amazon might turn tail on the hefty investment once it gets its nose bloodied or begins weighing the cost versus the benefits. But in terms of “Alpha House” achieving something that looks like victory, so far, mission accomplished.