It’s become increasingly evident that, in order to talk about TV shows, you now have to turn to places other than television. Netflix has been giving broadcast and cable TV a run for its money lately—what with hit shows like “Arrested Development” and “Orange Is the New Black” and the announcement that the download/streaming service will be producing four new Marvel Comics-based series. Lagging a bit behind that, but nonetheless doing its part to destroy conventional distribution is Amazon.com’s new Prime Instant Video service.
Back in April Amazon released a slew of pilots (14 to be precise) and asked internet-equipped viewers to vote. Although a number of high-profile efforts (the Zombieland spin-off and an Onion News series) have fallen apart, Amazon is plugging away at efforts to turn at least five of those pilots into full series (three of which will be children’s shows). The first series out of the chute is the political sitcom “Alpha House.” Just from the opening credits, you can spot the talent. The show is written and created by “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau and produced and directed by Adam Bernstein (“30 Rock,” “Breaking Bad,” “Californication”). Front and center it stars John Goodman as Gil John Biggs, a lazy, comfortably ensconced longtime senator from North Carolina. Biggs lives in one of those K Street mini-mansions that senators stuff themselves into whenever Congress is in session. His roomies are a mousey (possibly gay) senator from Arizona (Matt Malloy, “Six Feet Under”) and a distinguished African-American senator facing possible corruption charges (Clark Johnson from “The Wire”). When their other housemate (Bill Murray in a very brief but extremely funny cameo) gets dragged off by the Department of Justice, they go looking for someone to fill the space. They find it in newly bachelorized up-and-comer Sen. Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos from “All My Children”).
Trudeau clearly knows who he’s lampooning here, poking fun at embattled Republican senators trying to fend off the combined threats of complacency, newfound minority status and the growing Tea Party specter. But the show isn’t a total farce. It’s not as mean-spirited as HBO’s “Veep,” for example, nor as insidery as the George Clooney/Steven Soderbergh-produced “K Street.” It’s a smartly satirical, single-camera sitcom set firmly in the real world. The dialogue is breezy, amusing and often wonderfully foul-mouthed. (Plus, it nicely avoids the Aaron Sorkin/“West Wing” trap of being too overly written.) The physical details are sharp and funny (such as the dish full of American flag lapel pins sitting in the senators’ kitchen).
Goodman, having weathered shows as diverse as “Roseanne” and “Treme,” is an old hand at centering this sort of ensemble. He’s surrounded by a diverse group, and their camaraderie has a lived-in feel. Although the show is not airing on commercial-filled network television (or pay cable), it’s got a slick, professional look to it. Producers have already promised some high-profile cameos in future episodes, including Haley Joel Osment, Wanda Sykes and Amy Sedaris. Sounds like appointment TV to me. ... Or appointment internet downloading, as the case may be.