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Amazon Opens An Entertainment Door With 'Alpha House'

Mark Consuelos (from left), John Goodman, Clark Johnson and Matt Malloy star as four Republican senators sharing a house in Washington in <em>Alpha House, </em>Amazon's first original series.
Amazon Studios
Mark Consuelos (from left), John Goodman, Clark Johnson and Matt Malloy star as four Republican senators sharing a house in Washington in Alpha House, Amazon's first original series.

There are about a dozen reasons I really wanted to love Alpha House, an original comedy series about four U.S. senators sharing a home on Capitol Hill. It premieres on Amazon — yes, Amazon — on Friday.

The biggest reason: often-underrated star John Goodman, playing a politician up for re-election who knows exactly what voters value in a legislator:

"Two undefeated seasons, 11 conference titles, two national championships," says Goodman's Gil John Biggs, who has coasted from a star basketball coaching career right into a plum Senate seat. Biggs works hard to avoid hard work; there's no perk he's beneath taking, no contributor he won't schmooze, and he has breezed past token opponents in every election.

Until now.

"Guess who just announced he's running now?" Biggs' wife and adviser screeches in a later scene. "[Duke basketball coach] Digger Mancusi. ... You're in a real race now, darlin'."

As Biggs slams his phone against a nearby wall in frustration, it's obvious he's suddenly living his worst nightmare: an opponent with a better coaching record.

Biggs faces this horror while living in a house with three other Republican senators: a philandering Latino legislator from Florida, an ethically challenged African-American from Pennsylvania and a possibly closeted gay man from Nevada. The setup is inspired by an actual house owned by Democratic U.S. Rep. George Miller.

The show's creators were partly inspired by a real Washington house where politicians are roommates.
/ Amazon Studios
Amazon Studios
The show's creators were partly inspired by a real Washington house where politicians are roommates.

And it gives creator Garry Trudeau, of Doonesbury fame, lots of latitude to poke at the hypocrisy of politicians in general and Republicans in particular — as when Robert Bettencourt (Clark Johnson), who is African-American, tries to explain away those ethics charges to roommate Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos).

"It's a political lynching," Bettencourt says, earnestly.

"I'm sure people in Pennsylvania find a black senator interesting," Guzman replies. "But you've got to keep it interesting like the Epcot Center. Not interesting like Django."

Still, character stuff that comes uncomfortably close to stereotype isn't even the biggest problem here. Unfortunately the political jabs in Alpha House have already been unleashed by better shows, like Netflix's House of Cards and HBO's Veep.

'A Cog In Their Machine Of World Domination'

Friday's debut of Alpha House is an important first step for Amazon, which will launch its second original series, Betas, next week. The online retailer faces instant comparisons to Netflix, a pioneer in the original online-series business.

But where Netflix dumps every episode of a new season online at once, Amazon will release just three episodes of Alpha House to its Amazon Prime subscribers on Friday, unveiling one new episode each following week until the remaining eight programs have premiered online.

That strategy doesn't seem likely to feed binge-viewing appetites the way Netflix does; Alpha House seems more like a well-crafted perk for those who already subscribe to the Amazon Prime service.

Even the show's stars don't necessarily understand how the process works, as Goodman revealed during a recent stop by The Daily Show.

"I don't know," Goodman said sheepishly, when host Jon Stewart asked how to see the show. "I'm selling their product. ... I'm just a cog in their machine of world domination."

That's OK, John; we're not quite sure what Amazon's up to, either.

There's other, smaller problems with Alpha House. Female characters are often trivialized as servile staffers, sexy girlfriends or wives clucking over speakerphones. And though every episode has great cameo appearances from performers like Bill Murray, Cynthia Nixon and Wanda Sykes, their roles are so brief you barely realize they're on-screen before they're gone again.

While I don't love Alpha House, I still like it; mostly because of the easy chemistry between Goodman and his co-stars. Together, they've made a fun series about a bunch of dysfunctional guys who just happen to be U.S senators.

It's not going to make Amazon the next big name in original online television. But it just might make you turn away from HBO or Netflix the next time you're looking for a funny show or two. And for Amazon, that just might be enough.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.