4:46pm

Fri November 15, 2013
Television

Amazon Opens An Entertainment Door With 'Alpha House'

Originally published on Fri November 15, 2013 8:07 pm

There are about a dozen reasons I really wanted to love Alpha House, an original comedy series about four U.S. senators sharing a home on Capitol Hill. It premieres on Amazon — yes, Amazon — on Friday.

The biggest reason: often-underrated star John Goodman, playing a politician up for re-election who knows exactly what voters value in a legislator:

"Two undefeated seasons, 11 conference titles, two national championships," says Goodman's Gil John Biggs, who has coasted from a star basketball coaching career right into a plum Senate seat. Biggs works hard to avoid hard work; there's no perk he's beneath taking, no contributor he won't schmooze, and he has breezed past token opponents in every election.

Until now.

"Guess who just announced he's running now?" Biggs' wife and adviser screeches in a later scene. "[Duke basketball coach] Digger Mancusi. ... You're in a real race now, darlin'."

As Biggs slams his phone against a nearby wall in frustration, it's obvious he's suddenly living his worst nightmare: an opponent with a better coaching record.

Biggs faces this horror while living in a house with three other Republican senators: a philandering Latino legislator from Florida, an ethically challenged African-American from Pennsylvania and a possibly closeted gay man from Nevada. The setup is inspired by an actual house owned by Democratic U.S. Rep. George Miller.

And it gives creator Garry Trudeau, of Doonesbury fame, lots of latitude to poke at the hypocrisy of politicians in general and Republicans in particular — as when Robert Bettencourt (Clark Johnson), who is African-American, tries to explain away those ethics charges to roommate Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos).

"It's a political lynching," Bettencourt says, earnestly.

"I'm sure people in Pennsylvania find a black senator interesting," Guzman replies. "But you've got to keep it interesting like the Epcot Center. Not interesting like Django."

Still, character stuff that comes uncomfortably close to stereotype isn't even the biggest problem here. Unfortunately the political jabs in Alpha House have already been unleashed by better shows, like Netflix's House of Cards and HBO's Veep.

'A Cog In Their Machine Of World Domination'

Friday's debut of Alpha House is an important first step for Amazon, which will launch its second original series, Betas, next week. The online retailer faces instant comparisons to Netflix, a pioneer in the original online-series business.

But where Netflix dumps every episode of a new season online at once, Amazon will release just three episodes of Alpha House to its Amazon Prime subscribers on Friday, unveiling one new episode each following week until the remaining eight programs have premiered online.

That strategy doesn't seem likely to feed binge-viewing appetites the way Netflix does; Alpha House seems more like a well-crafted perk for those who already subscribe to the Amazon Prime service.

Even the show's stars don't necessarily understand how the process works, as Goodman revealed during a recent stop by The Daily Show.

"I don't know," Goodman said sheepishly, when host Jon Stewart asked how to see the show. "I'm selling their product. ... I'm just a cog in their machine of world domination."

That's OK, John; we're not quite sure what Amazon's up to, either.

There's other, smaller problems with Alpha House. Female characters are often trivialized as servile staffers, sexy girlfriends or wives clucking over speakerphones. And though every episode has great cameo appearances from performers like Bill Murray, Cynthia Nixon and Wanda Sykes, their roles are so brief you barely realize they're on-screen before they're gone again.

While I don't love Alpha House, I still like it; mostly because of the easy chemistry between Goodman and his co-stars. Together, they've made a fun series about a bunch of dysfunctional guys who just happen to be U.S senators.

It's not going to make Amazon the next big name in original online television. But it just might make you turn away from HBO or Netflix the next time you're looking for a funny show or two. And for Amazon, that just might be enough.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today, online retailer Amazon debuts the first original comedy series made exclusively for its site. "Alpha House" is a Washington, D.C. satire created by "Doonesbury's" Garry Trudeau with help from Newsweek writer Jonathan Alter. But NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says Amazon's answer to Netflix's groundbreaking "House of Cards" has a long way to go before it makes a similar impact.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: There's about a dozen reasons why I really wanted to love "Alpha House," Amazon's new comedy series about four senators sharing a home on Capitol Hill. The biggest reason, often-underrated star John Goodman, playing a politician up for re-election who knows exactly what voters value in a legislator.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALPHA HOUSE")

JOHN GOODMAN: (as Senator Gil John Briggs) I'm being primaried by a guy who's had two mini strokes since he announced. Who's going to vote for a walking time bomb? Besides, everybody in that state knows my record. Two undefeated seasons, 11 conference titles, two national championships.

DEGGANS: Nothing snags votes like a little sports-connected fame. And Goodman's Gil John Biggs has coasted from a star basketball coaching career into a plum Senate seat from North Carolina. Biggs works hard to avoid hard work, coasting past token opponents in every election. Until now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALPHA HOUSE")

SUZANNA HAY: (as Maddie) Taylor had another stroke last night. He withdrew from the race.

GOODMAN: (as Senator Gil John Briggs) What? Now that's an outstanding development.

HAY: (as Maddie) Nah-uh, Honey Bear. Guess who just announced he's running now?

GOODMAN: (as Senator Gil John Briggs) Who?

HAY: (as Maddie) Digger Mancusi.

GOODMAN: (as Senator Gil John Briggs) Huh?

DEGGANS: It's every politician's worst nightmare: an opponent with a better coaching record. And Gil John faces this horror while living in a house with three other Republican senators - a philandering Latino legislator from Florida, an ethically-challenged African-American from Pennsylvania, and a possibly closeted gay man from Nevada.

The whole setup is inspired by an actual house filled with politicians in Washington. And it gives creator Garry Trudeau lots of latitude to poke at the hypocrisy of politicians, as seen here when African-American Senator Robert Bettencourt tries to explain his ethics charges to roommate Andy Guzman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALPHA HOUSE")

CLARK JOHNSON: (as Robert Bettencourt) It's a political lynching.

MARK CONSUELOS: (as Andy Guzman) Wow. Really? You're leading with the race card? You sure that's a good fit?

JOHNSON: (as Robert Bettencourt) Excuse me?

CONSUELOS: (as Andy Guzman) You're Mr. Accountability. A lynching sounds so early Al Sharpton. I mean, I'm sure people in Pennsylvania find a black senator interesting. But you've got to keep it interesting like Epcot Center, not interesting like "Django." But, hey, that's just me. I've only used my Cuban-American minority status on special occasions, you know, like small business loans. But whatever works for you, amigo.

DEGGANS: Still, character details that come uncomfortably close to stereotypes aren't even the biggest problem here. Unfortunately, the political satire in "Alpha House" has already been covered by better shows, like Netflix's "House of Cards" and HBO's "Veep." "Alpha House" is an important first step for Amazon, which will launch its second original series next Friday. The online retailer faces instant comparisons to Netflix, a pioneer in the original online series business that dumps every episode of a new season online all at once.

Amazon will release just three episodes of "Alpha House" to its Amazon Prime subscribers today, then unveil one new episode a week until the remaining eight have gone online. But even the show's stars don't really understand how the process works, like when Goodman stopped by "The Daily Show" to promote "Alpha House."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART")

JON STEWART: How does this Amazon thing - I didn't know Amazon did television shows. Is that a button you click on the site? Is that how...

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: Is that how it happens? Can you use...

GOODMAN: I don't know.

DEGGANS: That's OK, John. We're not quite sure what Amazon's up to either. While I don't love "Alpha House," I still like it, mostly because of the easy chemistry between Goodman and his costars. Together, they've made a fun series about a bunch of dysfunctional guys who just happen to be U.S. Senators. It's not going to make Amazon the next big name in original online television. But it just might make you look away from HBO or Netflix the next time you're looking for a funny show or two. And for Amazon, that just might be enough.

CORNISH: Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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