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Seitz on Alpha House: A Political Comedy That Finds Itself Stuck in the Middle

Alpha House, a comedy about four Republican senators sharing a house in Washington, is the first original TV production by Amazon. If nothing else, it proves that the retailer can play on the same field as any cable channel or broadcast network (or Netflix, for that matter). That's not the same thing as saying it's excellent, though — just that it looks good, has a strong cast, and is consistently watchable and occasionally very funny. I've only seen the first three episodes — which are being made available for free; to see the rest, you need a $79 Amazon Prime subscription — and the fourth hits Amazon tomorrow, so of course there's no telling where it might go, quality-wise; maybe this time next year we'll all be talking about how it's TV's best new show, or most improved, or something. For now it feels like one of those shows you're happy to see when you stumble onto it but that you don't necessarily seek out. The ultimate example of this for me is that old NBC show Wings; you doubtless have your own. 

John Goodman is Gil John Biggs, the most blustery inhabitant of the house, a longtime North Carolina senator who's too comfortable. He thinks that because he's a beloved ex-coach he'll be able to keep his seat forever; a current, perhaps equally beloved coach challenges him, and he starts to panic. Mild-mannered Nevada Senator and ex-missionary Louis Laffer (Matt Malloy) is suddenly challenged, too, by a guy named Hickock — a macho man who's described (by Stephen Colbert, in a hilarious cameo) as the love child of John Wayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Senator Robert Bettencourt (Clark Johnson) is a smooth Pennsylvanian who's cut many ethical corners over the years and is worried that the hammer's finally about to fall on him. The fourth inhabitant of the Alpha House is only seen briefly (it's a surprise cameo by a movie star who only speaks one word of dialogue), and once he exits the picture, the other senators replace him with Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos), a newly divorced Florida senator whose loud sex with his mistress is the talk of Capitol Hill. 

Alpha House is created by Doonesbury mastermind Garry Trudeau, and it has a "realistic" comic strip-sensibility that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. The performers mostly keep their reactions low-key — Johnson, Goodman, and Malloy, in particular, are quite credible as guys who've been national legislators for so long that it's just another job to them, and who probably don't take their responsibilities as seriously as they should. There's a great, small moment in one of the episodes where Robert participates in a filibuster and runs out the clock by citing the allegedly heroic war efforts of paid contractors (he's also buttering up his contributors, natch); when Gil John's turn comes up, he exasperatedly says he has nothing prepared, and Robert hands him his speech, assuring him that it's never a bad idea for guys like them to kiss the same butts twice. There are a lot of details like this — bits that feel like the product of research, plus a world-weariness that stops just short of total cynicism.

Elsewhere, though, these elements clash with humor that plays like a slightly raunchier Doonesbury — by which I mean exaggerated to the point where the caricatured material butts up against the more laid-back acting and directing. A bit in the first episode in which Louis accepts a "Say No to Sodomy" award from a homophobic Christian group is just too easy to start with, and when Louis raises eyebrows by listing the various specific sexual practices he's against, and we're supposed to find it hilarious that he knows what they are because it means he's probably gay, the scene becomes a fish-in-a-barrel shoot. A glimpse of another Republican senator killing filibuster time by defending climate change as just another form of natural selection ("Do you think that every one of God's creations made it onto the ark?") is just sub–Daily Show obviousness, substituting sneering for wit. Later, Cynthia Nixon shows up as a Democratic senator, and ruins a perfectly good scene about the ritualized conservative-liberal hostility by lecturing Gil John in language that seems cribbed from a mediocre Bill Maher "New Rules" routine. Here, as elsewhere, the problem isn't the content itself (if a comedy is coming from a particular point-of-view, it might as well own up to it); it's that you feel as though the makers of Alpha House momentarily paused the comedy to deliver a Very Important Message.

Political comedies tend to work best when they're absurdist (like Duck Soup, or HBO's Veep) or much, much subtler (the gold standard being Tanner '88, a collaboration between Trudeau and Robert Altman). Alpha House falls somewhere in the middle and gets stranded there, though the company is so likable that it's a limbo you may not mind being stranded in. 

Photo: Amazon