‘Alpha House’ Creator Garry Trudeau: Amazon Wants to Rival HBO Originals

Garry Trudeau, who has inked the politically charged “Doonesbury” comic strip since 1970, has found himself in the vanguard of over-the-top TV programming.

Trudeau’s “Alpha House,” a political satire starring John Goodman as a senator rooming with three other U.S. senators in a D.C. townhouse, was one of the first originals greenlit by Amazon Studios. The comedy was renewed after the first run hit last fall, and season two premiered Friday, Oct. 24, with Amazon releasing all 10 episodes.

“At the very beginning, they told us they wanted to compete directly with shows of HBO’s quality,” Trudeau, 66, said in an interview. “The follow-up question was, ‘Are you prepared to resource it at that level?’ And they were.”

While Trudeau declined to reveal the size of the productions, he said both seasons came in under budget. “There was never any need to go back to them (to ask for more money)… You do worry they’ll say, ‘Let’s do it for less,'” he said.

Of course, Amazon Studios has a long way to go before it can rival HBO or other premium cablers — or, at this stage, even Netflix — in terms of output or acclaim for its original TV shows.

From where he sits, Trudeau said Amazon stands apart from traditional studios and networks as far as its philosophical approach in giving creators latitude. His past TV projects include political spoof “Tanner ’88” for HBO with director Robert Altman.

“We were lightly supervised compared with other networks,” Trudeau said. “The experience has just been a joy and a privilege from start to finish — and I know it doesn’t always unfold like that.” It’s a sentiment echoed by indie filmmaker Jill Soloway, whose dramedy “Transparent” with Jeffrey Tambor debuted on Amazon in September.

Amazon, like Netflix, doesn’t disclose specific viewing metrics. But it’s worth noting that the studio picked up “Alpha House” for a second season based in part on its performance, whereas execs declined to renew “Betas,” the Silicon Valley comedy that was Amazon Studios’ other first entry into originals.

In “Alpha House” season two, Goodman (“Argo”), Mark Consuelos (“All My Children”), Clark Johnson (“The Wire”) and Matt Malloy (“Six Feet Under”) reprise their senatorial roles. At the outset, midterm elections loom with Senators Biggs (Goodman), Bettencourt (Johnson) and Laffer (Malloy) facing strong Democratic challengers while Sen. Guzman (Consuelos) preps for a 2016 presidential run.

Trudeau said that with eight months to create season 2 of “Alpha House,” he had a bit more time to develop larger story arcs and the pivots of the four main characters. The series, whose second-season debut was timed for the U.S.’s actual Nov. 4 midterm elections, is produced by Trudeau, Elliot Webb and Jonathan Alter.

“We had to carry them through the midterm election and through the conclusion of it,” he said.

So why is Guzman ramping up a bid for president? “He doesn’t really know the answer to that question,” Trudeau said. “He’s a candidate in search of a mission. He’s just fueled by an inordinate amount of ambition. He certainly wouldn’t be the first person to aspire to that office without a clear vision — although he does find his vision.”

Consuelos, for his part, found the second season “digs in deeper” into each of the characters. He said he relished playing Sen. Guzman again, who has a “wreck of a personal life” and mounts a presidential run with the backing of his billionaire Cuban girlfriend. “It’s too much fun for one actor to be allowed to have,” he said.

Catering to a politically wonky audience, “Alpha House” season two includes cameos from real-world political figures (as the first season also did). Those include former presidential adviser David Axelrod, U.S. Senators John McCain and Elizabeth Warren, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, George Stephanopoulos of ABC’s “Good Morning America” and “This Week,” and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.

“We tried to create moments (with political figures) where it was appropriate, not just stick them in the show to catch the eye,” Trudeau said.

“Alpha House” season two had the same production schedule as the freshman run, with five days to shoot each episode. Filming again took place primarily at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens.

As for whether there’s a season 3 of “Alpha House,” that’s still yet to be determined. “We haven’t been told yet,” Trudeau said.

The second season of “Alpha House” joins other Amazon Studios originals available only to members of the e-commerce company’s Prime subscription service. Those include “Transparent” and three children’s series, “Tumble Leaf” from Bix Pix Entertainment; “Creative Galaxy” from Angela Santomero (“Blue’s Clues”); and “Annedroids” from Sinking Ship Entertainment.

In addition, Amazon Studios has six more original series in production. Those are Chris Carter’s supernatural thriller “The After”; Michael Connelly’s cop drama “Bosch”; “Hand of God” from Marc Forster and Ben Watkins; comedy “Mozart in the Jungle” from Paul Weitz, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Alex Timbers; comedy “Red Oaks” from Steven Soderbergh, David Gordon Green, Greg Jacobs and Joe Gangemi; and kids’ series “Wishenpoof!” from Santomero and “Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street.” The studio also has greenlit a second season of “Transparent” for 2015.

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