Law Review: Alpha House
For those of us who plowed through the first season of Netflix’s House of Cards within 48 hours of its release, waiting for Season 2 seems like a daunting prospect. Fortunately, Netflix’s would-be competitor Amazon is trying to fill the gap with Alpha House, a more humorous take on the business of governance. In a devious marketing ploy, Amazon has released the full version of the pilot episode for free online. If they succeed in hooking you with the pilot, expect to pay for subsequent episodes through Amazon’s Prime Instant Video service, which the company hopes will someday rival Netflix’s streaming video platform.
Alpha House‘s advertising claims Bill Murray and John Goodman as its stars, but don’t be fooled. Murray disappears within ninety seconds of the opening credits and will probably only reemerge in occasional cameos. The show’s four leads are Goodman, Clark Johnson, Mark Consuelos, and Matt Malloy. All four play Republican senators who live together as roommates in a modest DC townhouse.
Like the Democrats in House of Cards, the Republicans of Alpha House mostly see politics through a cynical perspective. They have seen it all, heard it all, and don’t believe a word of it. Whenever a character makes an ideological speech reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin dramas like The West Wing or The Newsroom, these guys wait patiently for him to shut up. Politics is their job; one they approach with the grim, weary determination of veteran waste management specialists.
Unlike the Netflix show, however, Amazon’s effort is actually pretty funny. In that respect, Alpha is a welcome relief from Cards‘s barrage of horrifying moral turpitude. Political cartoonist Garry Trudeau created Amazon’s show, and the pilot’s modest helping of partisan jokes clearly reflect the Democratic leaning of its creator’s Doonesbury comic strip. Trudeau’s influence means that the show will not always amuse registered Republicans, but that doesn’t mean it will only appeal to card-carrying Democrats. Alpha House’s central joke can appeal to a broad audience: four powerful men on the far side of middle age, living and acting like college students.
Factional humor is always a tempting option for entertainers. About 40 percent of the population is conditioned to smirk at the name “Cheney,” and another 40 percent is conditioned to smirk at “Biden.” It is also hard to resist the opportunity to use television’s bully pulpit to evangelize in favor of one faction or (more likely) against another. Nevertheless, it is possible to find humor in politics without alienating large swaths of the population. Author Christopher Buckley has done it for decades. HBO’s Veep, which just returned for a second season, has managed to produce hilarious episodes that are mostly devoid of factional point-scoring. NBC’s 1600 Penn, which just wrapped up its first season, attempted the same thing with uneven success.
What kind of show will Alpha House become? It is too early to say. The pilot concludes with one character’s appearance as a guest on a fictional episode of The Colbert Report. This might indicate that the show will follow Colbert’s increasingly popular style: lampooning the enemy when the opportunity arises, but not forgetting to entertain those Americans who choose not to choose sides.
–Austin Murnane, Columnist