'Alpha House' Review: Partisan Humor

Unlike other political TV shows, Amazon's first original series aims squarely at the GOP.

Mark Consuelos, John Goodman, Matt Malloy and Clark Johnson play four Republican senators living together in a townhouse on Amazon's "Alpha House."
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"Alpha House" is the story of four Republican senators who have chosen to live in a house, who stop being polite and start getting real – or so goes the premise for Garry Trudeau's new comedy, Amazon's first original series, which debuts Friday. The set-up isn't all that strange – Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., has been playing house with other lawmakers since 1982 – and for an approach that is a little simplistic and entirely one-sided, "Alpha House" lands some laugh-worthy punches.

Unlike "House of Cards," Netflix's entry into original content and "Alpha House" cousin in delivery format, or "Veep," the HBO political comedy shows and "Alpha House" cousin in tone, "Alpha House" doesn't tiptoe around party lines. (That said, it's easy enough to figure out the anti-heroes of "House of Cards" and "VEEP" are Democrats, perhaps reflecting a desire to resist the Hollywood liberal stereotype.)

Our four "Alpha House" heroes are red-blooded Republicans: Republicans who worry about being "primaried" by far-right tea party candidates; Republicans who travel to Afghanistan to protest the war's drawdown because "winning is what we do … 'not losing' is a Democrat thing;" Republicans who – out of fear of being seen publicly reaching across the aisle – won't even talk to a Democratic colleague (Cynthia Nixon) who approaches them to warn about an oncoming ethics committee accusation.

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The four roomies in "Alpha House" check the boxes of GOP political stereotypes. Gil John Biggs (John Goodman) is a good ol' boy from the South, resting comfortably on the laurels of his mahogany-trimmed office until an competitive seat threatens his tenure. Robert Bettencourt (Clark Johnson) is a Northeastern swing state Republican, an African-American teetering on the edge of an ethics scandal. Louis Laffer (Matt Malloy)is a Nevada Mormon, whose sheepish disposition feeds rumors that he is a closeted homosexual, rumors that aren't helping his primary campaign against a "man's man" opponent. Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos) is the newcomer to the House, a freshman senator and Latino lothario who has Marco Rubio-like presidential ambitions.

While "House of Cards," "Veep" and the slew of other politically themed shows more or less use partisan politics to tell universal stories of human drama and comedy, "Alpha House" draws from the stances themselves as a source for humor. "When I was in school they didn't even teach climate change. We didn't need it then and we don't need it now," one senator says during a filibuster of a clean energy bill. The line that seems too outrageous to be true until you remember that Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, called global warming "more of a religion than a science."

Of course, some of these slights feel like shooting senatorial fish in barrel, particularly the riff on Louis' sexual orientation. He exhibits the worst of gay stereotypes – doling out fashion advice to Andy's girlfriend (Yara Martinez) and enlisting a neighbor (Wanda Sykes) to take care of his precious garden – while receiving the "Say No to Sodomy" award from the National Organization for Marriage-like "Council of Normal Marriage."

Such a critique on that dying streak of social conservativism isn't a particularly clever or creative one. Louis and the other senators are often trapped in caricatures that the show would do well defying a bit for some truly courageous laughs.

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Nevertheless, "Alpha House" takes some worthy shots at the political system as a whole, not just the Republican Party. "Shhh … we can't coordinate!" Andy teases before bedding the pretty chief of his super PAC. It also sticks its world firmly in contemporary Washington, often name-dropping actual senators – and thanks to the beauty of Photoshop, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., makes an appearance in the opening credits.

Trudeau and the rest of the writers have a firm understanding of how the Beltway media cycle turns. A Stephen Colbert appearance gone awry is mocked the next day on "Morning Joe" and soon goes viral on the Internet – or "vee-RAL," as Gil John calls it in his Southern drawl.

Correction 11/25/2013: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of "Alpha House" creator Garry Trudeau.