The Telefile

Alpha House: Needs More Paint

by Ethan Alter November 14, 2013 5:00 pm
<i>Alpha House</i>: Needs More Paint

Veep has Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Armando Iannucci. House of Cards has Kevin Spacey and David Fincher (at least for the first two episodes). How can Alpha House, the new political comedy that's launching on Amazon on Friday (the first three episodes will be made available then, followed by a new installment every week), hope to compete with those dynamic duos? Easy -- by partnering the always-reliable John Goodman up with Doonesbury mastermind Garry Trudeau. Based on the pilot episode at least, it's a combination that holds a lot of promise… even if it's not fully realized yet.

Unlike its D.C. rivals (but exactly like Doonesbury), Alpha House takes place in the real world, which means that Obama is in the Oval Office, Reid controls the Senate, Boehner heads up the House and the names of various other Beltway luminaries are tossed around, though none of them appear on camera. Our central characters -- a quartet of Senate Republicans who share the titular abode -- have roots in reality, but are otherwise entirely fictional. Alpha House appears to be Trudeau's riff on the infamous C Street Center, a luxury living space inhabited exclusively by conservative Christian Congressional representatives who belong to a faith-minded organization calling itself The Fellowship. (The C Street Center was where Senator John Ensign lived before confessing to an extramarital affair and resigning in the midst of ethics-related investigation.) Although the four men who reside in Alpha House claim to follow conservative values, in private they're more than willing to trade beliefs for favors and the promise of more power.

Goodman holds center stage as Gil John Biggs, a blustery Southern type who parlayed his stint as a successful football coach into a political career. Surrounding him are pragmatic Pennsylvania Senator Robert Bettencourt (played by actor/director Clark Johnson, best known for helming some of the best episodes of The Wire, Homicide and The Shield); timid -- and likely closeted –Nevada public servant, Louis Laffer (Matt Malloy); and smooth-talking, lady-bedding Marco Rubio clone (he's even from Florida!), Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos). Like all pilots, the Alpha House premiere packs a lot of set-up into its 24-minute runtime. Biggs, for example, is facing a tough re-election fight against another popular coach, while Laffer is consistently encouraged to prove his manliness and Bettencourt and Guzman butt heads over who is going to be the alpha dog of Alpha House.

Because Amazon doesn't have HBO or Netflix money (at least not yet), Alpha House is quite clearly produced on the cheap, with most of the budget going to its cast and roster of big-name guest stars. (Bill Murray pops up in the pilot as an Ensign stand-in, while Stephen Colbert appears as himself over the closing credits; future episodes will reportedly feature drive-bys from Wanda Sykes and Cynthia Nixon among others.) The lackluster production values wouldn't be as noticeable if the show itself was a bit more involving or, you know, funny. But with all the exposition flying about, there's not a lot of room for laughs and, besides, Trudeau isn't really that kind of writer. He's a satirist, not a gag guy and the hope is that the character groundwork he's laying here will pay off in smart, savvy ways down the line. That's certainly what happened with his last foray into TV politics, the terrific HBO miniseries Tanner '88, directed by Robert Altman and starring Michael Murphy as a presidential candidate who hit the campaign trail mockumentary-style during the 1988 election. (It's now available on DVD and, once you get passed the uneven first episode, it becomes essential viewing.)

In order for that to occur, though, Goodman is going to have to try harder with the material he's been given than he does in the pilot. That's not to say the actor is bad per se; he's just not as dialed into this role as Louis-Dreyfus is with Selina Meyer or Spacey is with Frank Underwood. Those characters popped off the screen fully-formed in the first five minutes of their respective shows and then revealed new dimensions (comic and/or dramatic) as the runs continued. One gets the sense that Goodman and Trudeau are still trying to figure out who Biggs is, not unlike the way Amy Poehler consistently revamped Leslie Knope during Parks and Recreation's work-in-progress first season. The secret star of the pilot, in fact, turns out to be Johnson, who nabbed the most interesting role of the four leads and underplays the comedy just right. He's reason alone to keep returning to Alpha House, which otherwise feels like a potentially good show that's still under construction.

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