Alpha House: TV Review

Four Republican senators share a house in Washington, D.C., and fight for their political lives as the Tea Party surge puts them in jeopardy. While not as funny as HBO's "Veep," the premise is solid (house-sharing is common) and brings a sense of freshness to the scripted world, though overwhelmed viewers may find that their DVRs can't keep up with all the worthy watching out there.

Amazon gets into the scripted game with a strong, star-studded political comedy from Garry Trudeau that follows the exploits of four Republican senators living in the same house in Washington, D.C.

It's getting mighty crowded inside your television (and computer). As you undoubtedly know, the onslaught of new scripted fare continues unabated and the surging development slates at Netflix, Hulu, Crackle, etc., only look to add to the burden of sifting through the myriad offerings.

Now Amazon, the online retailer that launched Amazon Studios in 2010, has officially entered the fray with Friday's debut of the star-studded political comedy Alpha House, starring John Goodman, Clark Johnson, Matt Malloy and Mark Consuelos as four Republican senators sharing the same house in Washington, D.C. (a common practice), and trying to survive in an election year when the Tea Party threatens their electoral support.

Written by Doonesbury creator and Pulitzer Prize winner Garry Trudeau, Alpha House is the second political-centric offering from an online platform (Netflix's House of Cards being the other) and the third in the genre when HBO's Veep is taken into account. In tone, Alpha House tacks much more closely to Veep but it shares certain elements with House of Cards as well, most notably the superb camerawork and smart writing.

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With one foot in the new school and another in the old, Amazon will make the first three episodes available to all on Friday so viewers can get a sense of the series (the pilot alone is online right now). The online retailer will then make future episodes available in the more traditional weekly cycle, provided you're an Amazon Prime subscriber. (Members of Prime, the main benefit of which up until recently was free two-day shipping, have also had access to Amazon's streaming content of acquired series for a while now, so the addition of original content for the service was the next logical step. The tech entrepreneur series Betas, another original, premieres next Friday.)

Alpha House is a nice coming-out party for Amazon in that the show is funny and accurate enough in its skewering of politics and the dubious dealmaking that inevitably comes with retaining one's seat. Goodman and Johnson shine as the veteran senators who have survived longer than most. Goodman's character, Gil John Briggs, is from North Carolina and he's coasted on his history as a famous coach for many years but now faces a huge challenge -- from another coach. Goodman knows how to play Southern jaded as well or better than anyone, and he's the glue here.

Johnson, famous as both an actor and a director, plays Robert Bettencourt from Pennsylvania, the highest-ranking senator but one who's involved in "a political witch hunt" possibly of his own making.

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Malloy plays Louis Laffer from Nevada, a senator seen by many as weak and meek, with whispers -- or in the case of his roomies, loud talk -- about his sexual orientation. He's running against a gun-toting Tea Party candidate "who has killed two people legally."

Consuelos plays the recently divorced, good-looking ladies man Andy Guzman, from Florida. Here's a guy who does not lack for confidence but has a blind spot in his cockiness and declared intention to be president. While he's not currently running for re-election, he's gotten into a "relationship" with political operative Adriana (Yara Martinez), which could spell trouble.

The first three episodes of Alpha House are promising. A cameo by Bill Murray in the pilot and Stephen Colbert in two other episodes helps a lot, as does the addition of several strong actresses -- some seen and others only heard in the first three episodes -- including Cynthia Nixon, Wanda Sykes, Amy Sedaris and Julie White. If Alpha House incorporates them more fully going forward, all the better.

Part of the trouble for the series, however, is that it's coming after two full seasons of Veep on HBO, which at this point is exponentially funnier covering much of the same ground. Alpha House, however, does seem to be trying for something a little more nuanced and less joke-heavy than Veep, but overall the show seem content to skewer politics and the political system (mainly politicians themselves), and in that sense falls far behind the searing exactness of Veep.

Another potential glitch may be that all four main characters are Republicans, and with creator Trudeau clearly on the other side of the aisle, conservative-leaning viewers may see Alpha House as just another Democrat/liberal attempt to make fun of them. While that may be true -- and recent Republican and Tea Party decisions have created an atmosphere of easy and just ridicule -- it might help Alpha House to show Democrats being the butt of the joke as well. That said, the first three episodes of Alpha House certainly don't paint the four primary characters as stupid, forgoing easy laughs for a more nuanced look at the entire political environment the four senators trying to live in, together.

So, if your heaving, capacity-deprived DVRs are up for it, add another potential winner to the list of shows you're already watching.

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