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Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

'Alpha House' Is TV's Newest, Not Its Best, Political Comedy

The bar for political comedy on TV has been set pretty high by The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Veep, so it has to be an intimidating subgenre for any new show to tackle. Amazon's new sitcom Alpha House, one of the first ever original programs from the company alongside Silicon Valley comedy Betas, launched earlier this month and joined those aforementioned Emmy-dominating, politician-skewering shows in taking on Washington, DC. Political comedies are expected to walk a fine line between subtlety and scoring big laughs. In its first few episodes, Alpha House has yet to find that balance, and it's unfair to expect it to be up to par with those other series right off the bat. Veep took a few episodes to find its footing, and it's possible that Alpha House will too and avoid continued comparisons to TV's better satirical shows.

Alpha House follows four Republican Senators living together in a house in Washington, DC, and Amazon has made the first three episodes of the show's 11-episode first season available for free online. The show comes from Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, who writes the bulk of the episodes. It's the first TV show he's created since HBO's Tanner '88 in, um, 1988, and although he hasn't worked in TV in a while, Alpha House finds Trudeau returning to subject matter he knows well and his writing doesn't seem as rusty as you might expect. John Goodman is the lead as a no-nonsense southern senator named Gil John Biggs, with the supporting cast consists of Clark Johnson (Homicide: Life on the Street) as Pennsylvania Senator Robert Bettencourt, Mark Consuelos (American Horror Story) as oversexed presidential hopeful Andy Guzman, and Matt Molloy (Six Feet Under) as Louis Laffer, who's constantly trying to prove he's not a wimp while facing off against an alpha male competitor for re-election.

Because Alpha House only has four lead characters, they're fleshed out significantly better than the characters on most shows with larger casts in their initial episodes. We get to know all four leads quite a bit by the time the first few episodes are over as there's plenty of room for everybody to shine. Matt Molloy is a standout, with his character providing some of the show's best comedic fodder. He was a cast member on Tanner '88 25 years ago, and Trudeau still knows how to write for him. While keeping the cast small was a smart move (and probably partially a budgetary decision), it is a shame there isn't a female lead on the show. Cynthia Nixon and Wanda Sykes make guest appearances, with Amy Sedaris slated to pop up later in the season, but it would have been nice to see at least one female character given the screentime that these four dudes share.

While Alpha House's cast is its greatest strength and its actors have an immediate strong chemistry with each other, the writing is kind of all over the place. There are some incredibly funny moments in the first string of episodes and the plot moves along at a nice clip, but the laughs are sometimes too few and far between. Still, there's a specificity here that's impressive as Garry Trudeau is deeply familiar with the minutiae of the American political landscape and it shows.

As Amazon continues to roll out one new episode a week, we'll see whether Alpha House measures up to its peers in the political satire game. It's telling that some of the funniest moments in Alpha House thus far have come from a Stephen Colbert cameo in each of the first two episodes. Political comedy is so ingrained in real life politics that it's hard to portray that world without acknowledging the power of Stewart or Colbert. It's just a shame Colbert's cameos unintentionally serve as a reminder that there's sharper political comedy on TV.