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Inside The Big, Stupid Machine: The First Season of Alpha House

The worst thing you can do with Amazon’s first original series, which is now available in its entirety on the site, is treat Alpha House like some sort of House of Cards clone. Whereas House of Cards is deception and ambition told on a Shakespearean level of extreme drama, Alpha House opts to depict the inner workings of the Washington political machine with a much different perspective. It makes a lot of sense that Gary Trudeau is for creating the series. He also wrote or co-wrote all eleven episodes. Doonesbury has used observant, canny satire to set Washington on fire for decades now. The years have done nothing to change Trudeau’s disgust with the concept of human beings studying to become corrupt cartoon characters, all in the name of supposedly serving the interests of the people. Yet Trudeau has also at least implied that some of these people are redeemable, or even likable.

And if they can’t be either of those things, then they can at least be entertaining. All of this can certainly be said for virtually every major character in Alpha House.

Veep is another political-minded show that people might be tempted to compare Alpha House to. That’s a mistake, as well. Alpha House utilizes a much broader approach to savaging politics. It is lighter fare than Veep, but that doesn’t make the writing any less effective. Alpha House gets a perfect opening in the pilot, with a crooked senator (a flawless cameo by Bill Murray) going to pieces as the authorities wait outside his bathroom. It sets up the need for the rest of the Republican senators living in the house (John Goodman, Clark Johnson, and Matt Malloy) to find another roommate. They go with a young, charming senator (Mark Consuelos), eager to make a bigger mark in politics than what he’s achieved thus far, and Alpha House takes off from there. The series juggles threads for each of the four senators, and seeks to punctuate each story with as much parody as it can possibly manage.

A lot of the parody works, too. Trudeau has not lost his ability to depict the absurd. He’s supported in that by a diverse, multi-talented cast of character actors. Being able to write good satire is one thing, but a show like Alpha House is still going to depend mightily on actors who can make the words both hilarious and believable. Goodman steals virtually every moment he gets, which won’t surprise anyone who has watched him work in film and television for almost thirty years. With a slew of pitch-perfect movie appearances, and accomplishments like a long-overdue return toSaturday Night Live, you could say John Goodman is experiencing a comeback. Although Alpha Houseis definitely an ensemble affair, his character and performance is the best thing the show has going for it. Alpha House isn’t a starring vehicle for Goodman, but as a jaded Senator who is suddenly forced to get by on more than a legendary football career, we get to witness one of our most undervalued actors give us some of the best work we’ve ever seen from him.

Again, Alpha House is not solely a victory for Goodman. The series is filled with people who are capable of keeping even the best parodies from becoming obnoxious. Clark Johnson is another scene-stealer, as a senator with a sense of humor that tends to run on the dry side, even as he’s being investigated by the ethics committee. Keep in mind that this is the same ethics committee that Goodman’s character is a ranking member of, although he’s not entirely sure, since he never bothers to show up. Matt Malloy deserves credit, too, for every scene in which his character tries to respond to criticisms of being too soft (IE: too gay). These scenes include accidentally becoming a war hero, and a brilliantly-executed cameo by Stephen Colbert. Mark Consuelos’ character doesn’t take off quite as quickly as the others, but Consuelos rarely fails to be interesting. His chemistry with the rest of the main cast is spot-on, especially moments with Yara Martinez.

Chemistry plays a big part in the success of Alpha House’s first season. The show establishes solid banter between the four senators early on, while Julia White, Amy Sedaris, Cynthia Nixon, Haley Joel Osment, and Alicia Sable all contribute to the grounded lunacy of the initial eleven episodes. The jokes throughout the series are pretty obvious (the house includes a bowl full of American flag pins), but they’re not overpowering, ugly punch lines that swallow up the screen, screaming for attention. Even when the jokes stumble or fall over, the material still leaves a lot of trust up to the actors themselves. Everyone in the cast knows when to pull back, when to go for the big laugh, and when to let the idiocy of the hour speak for itself. Some have criticized the show for focusing the bulk of its energy on conservatives. While it would be nice to see the second season (there better be one) expand its target range, the show makes it pretty clear that no one is really any better than the other.  That’s one of the ways in which Alpha House can be both absurd and relevant at the same time. Everyone is kind of awful, everything is kind of a mess, and things will try to continue on regardless.

The first season opens strongly. It ends in such a way that there is plenty of potential for a second or even third season. Trudeau is no stranger to long-term story lines, and these characters certainly have room for further development (some of them could definitely use it). This first season is not flawless, but it’s pretty damn good. A second season can easily continue on with the things the show has already nicely established. It can also improve on certain factors.

Although Washington is in fact a pit of despair, decadence, indifference, and hopelessness, Alpha House is one of the things that remind us that there are always going to be things within that reality that are worth taking the time to mock. In the crowded field of political entertainment, it manages to do this in its own appealing way.