Fall 2013 Review: Alpha House

3 Jan

John Goodman and friends

With Netflix this past year showing that television can come from, well, the internet instead of television, Amazon, desperate to be a player in the streaming video scene, said “me too.” The more visible of Amazon’s initial two efforts is Alpha House, because it stars the well-known and consistently excellent John Goodman (and less visibly The Wire and Homicide veteran Clark Johnson) and is created by long-time Doonesbury scribe Gary Trudeau. I’m not particularly familiar with Doonesbury other than knowing that it contained political satire with a liberal bent and caught fire in the ’70s. Reading it was daunting because it felt like you needed decades of catching up to figure out what was going on, and when I read comics as a kid I remember seeing a walking cigarette, saying what the fuck, and not ever trying again.

Still, I thought with what I knew about Trudeau and what I knew about Alpha House – that it’s about four Republican senators who live together in a house in DC – it would be a cutting satire. It’s certainly a satire, but it’s not particularly cutting, and I don’t mean this as a negative. The show actual shows a begrudging warmth if not entirely respect for its main characters, at least in the first episode.

It’s warm and more occasionally smile-inducing than laugh out loud funny. There are bits that feel like they should be funnier; I get the joke but they don’t necessarily click. Unlike other shows from this fall where the jokes don’t work (see my review of The Michael J. Fox Show), I don’t think they’re that far off. The jokes are in the right direction, and the cast is generally winning in their delivery. The funniest moment, still, is due to an uncredited Stephen Colbert cameo playing over the end credits.

The show is a much more stylistic parody of the inanity of the Washington DC political culture, than a mundane real life more accurate portrayal in Veep, the most logical television comparison, and a show which shares some similarities and sensibilities. The target of most of the specific barbs are the tea party types; the Republican main characters could be viewed, from their actions, as empty hypocrites, but it’s not how they come off. They certainly seem partly absurd but also partly sensible, having to adjust to the ridiculous whims of their constituents just to ensure they get to come back and do it again. Veep is purposefully free of American political parties, which allows it to explore certain aspects of Washington culture in a richer way while neglecting others. Alpha House does not shy away from partisan politics, and while that and other choices probably take this show farther from Veep’s take on day-to-day Beltway life, it allows a surprisingly gentle but still apt satire of American political culture.

It’s not great but it is decently well done, and due to my personal preferences I probably like this better than other comedies with pilots of similar quality because of its subject matter and style. There’s a lot of room for growth, but unlike many other so-so shows, it’s fairly easy to see where that growth could come from.

Will I watch it again? Maybe. It’s not a top priority and I certainly didn’t finish the episode just wanting to immediately see the next, as happens with the best pilots. Still, I grew more fond of the show as it went along and it’s conceivable that I could marathon this in a spare moment later in the year – I do enjoy political comedy when done well.

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