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TV—or Streaming Video—Tonight: ‘Alpha House’ on Amazon

This political satire, Amazon's first streaming series, looks like big-time TV but plays like a cartoon.

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The title Alpha House makes Amazon’s first full-scale streaming video series sound like the fourth sequel in an ’80s frat-house comedy-movie series. It’s not, but it’s about that subtle. Written and created by Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, Alpha is a sort of frat-house-style political satire, about four Republican Senators who share a Washington, D.C. house as well as an almost complete lack of principle.

It’s not like frat humor and Congress are incompatible; Animal House’s epilogue, after all, told us that Bluto eventually became Sen. John Blutarsky. But Alpha House’s problem, so far, is that it’s set its story among its own Neidermeyers: broadly stereotyped, largely unsympathetic characters it scores points off like bumpers in a rigged pinball machine.

We meet Gil-John (John Goodman), a self-interested ex-coach with a North Carolina accent so Southern-fried it should come with hush puppies. Louis (Matt Malloy), a Nevadan whose less-than-macho demeanor and impeccable fashion sense are the subject of rumors and a possible re-election liability; to compensate, he’s styled himself “a prominent critic of the homosexual agenda.” Andy (Mark Consuelos) a Cuban American up-and-comer with a high-powered libido and not-so-secret Presidential ambitions. And Robert (Clark Johnson), a senior Senator from Pennsylvania, with a closetful of ethical shoes about to publicly drop on him. You’re not going to lost any popularity contests kicking Congress nowadays, of course, and Alpha House’s Republicans run a gamut from hypocritical to sleazy.

(I guess a disclosure’s necessary here: I’m a registered Democrat and probably about as liberal as Alpha House’s protagonists are conservative. But you know what Robert Frost said: “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a bludgeoningly one-sided streaming-video satire.” Or something like that.)

Since this is Amazon’s first series, it’s worth pointing out that it looks like honest-to-God TV with a TV budget. Besides the strong central cast, supporting players include Wanda Sykes and Amy Sedaris, as well as a few big-name cameos I won’t spoil if they haven’t been spoiled for you already. The production values are cable-ready; a third-episode sequence involving a p.r. trip to Afghanistan looks a bit ticky-tacky, but no more so than comparable scenes in cable and broadcast series. (The first three episodes, debuting today, are free for anyone to watch. Later episodes, premiering one a week, require a $79 annual Amazon Prime subscription.)

That Amazon has pulled off such a technically fine production the first time out, however, means it should be judged by the standards of the TV comedies it’s competing for attention with, and thus far it’s shooting high-priced fish in a well-crafted oak barrel. Some of its setups might have worked better, say, in a cartoon panel, but its broad sendups–Louis, for instance, receiving the “Say No to Sodomy Award,” a trophy topped by a bride and groom, from “The Council for Normal Marriage”– generate less laughter than self-satisfaction.

The best reason to stick with Alpha House so far is that its ideas are stronger than its execution. The show is refreshingly willing to be about specific political parties and issues, like the troop drawdown in Afghanistan, rather than focus on process or invented issues. (HBO’s Veep, which has become much funnier than the early Alpha House is, tends to avoid specific political satire in favor of nonpartisan cynicism.) And it’s especially astute to focus its story on the threat its elder established Senators feel from Tea Party primary challengers–a real dynamic that played out in the recent government shutdown. Told by an aide that he needs to “evolve” to get to the right of a potential opponent, Gil-John crows, “I’m feelin’ some seeeeerious evolution comin’ on!” So far, though, Alpha House ignores, say, the spending issues driving the Tea Party, instead painting Louis’ challenger as a gun-toting yahoo “who’s legally killed two people.”

Democrats, meanwhile, so far appear rarely and mainly to make Alpha’s Republicans look worse in comparison. One of the sharpest moments in episode 2 comes when Gil-John runs into a Democratic senator (Cynthia Nixon) at a restaurant; he has nothing against her personally, he explains, but it’s so toxic to be seen being even cordial to the enemy that he has to pretend to wag his finger at her while talking to her. It’s perceptive, it captures something real about the political moment today, and Goodman plays the scene with great comic flappability. But Nixon’s character puts a sanctimonious, canned cherry on top of the scene: “Remember how John Stuart Mill said that conservatives aren’t necessarily stupid people, but stupid people do tend to be conservative? That was then. Nowadays Stupid and Stupid’s mutant cousins, Crazy and Evil, are all that’s left of your party.” (Will McAvoy would be proud of that speech.) Gil-John’s response: “Who’s this Mills guy? He’s a dick!”

It’s often said that a political party is better served by having a strong, worthy opposition. That’s at least true of political satires. Satire needs to have a point of view, and it’s a strength of Alpha House that Trudeau doesn’t hide his own.

But comfortable superiority is the death of comedy. Good satire–The Colbert Report, say, or Doonesbury at its best–has a strong take without stacking the deck or setting anyone above ridicule. If Trudeau wants to argue, say, that today’s GOP is hypocritical, extreme, or dangerous, that’s fine–that’s satire–but it would be stronger and funnier if it engaged with a non-caricature version of the party.

The talent involved in Alpha House, and Amazon’s commitment to a full 11-episode season, makes me hope it will get there, as Veep did. (Trudeau showed he can do sharp TV satire, in the election sendup Tanner ’88 with Robert Altman, back in the pre-Sopranos days of HBO.) For now, though, it’s on double secret probation.