Amazon’s original comedy series returns for a second season. Does it get our vote?
Alpha House returns for a second season this weekend on Amazon Prime Instant Video. The political comedy was Amazon’s first original TV series, but it’s far from their best. It doesn’t help that it follows in the footsteps of such shows as The West and – of course – Netflix’s House of Cards.
Comparisons are inevitable, mostly because Garry Trudeau’s satire goes to such lengths to distinguish itself from the political pack. The West Wing focused on the strengths of an idealistic Democratic administration. Alpha House mocks the weakness of a supposedly real Republican opposition. House of Cards was scathing and serious. Alpha House is light-hearted and funny.
“Funny”, though, is used in the loosest sense of the word. Humour is this show’s biggest weakness: despite being a comedy, it simply isn’t that funny. In fact, it has fewer laughs in it than House of Cards. That side of things has improved, though, for the second season: there are several chuckles to be found in the opening instalments, averaging at least three per episode.
We quickly catch up with John Goodman’s former coach, Gil John, the good-hearted Senator for North Carolina – who is only happy to help out a former player-turned-war hero, until it turns out he’ll be running against him for the Democrats – and Pennsylvania’s Senator, Robert (Clark Johnson), whose nickname “The Love Doctor” is soon undermined by his own marital problems, and Nevada’s Louis (Matt Malloy), who continues to find increasingly cringe-worthy ways to embarrass himself.
The highlight of the bunch is Andy Guzman. All cheesy smiles and ambition, Mark Consuelos is a lot of fun as the sex-addicted Floridian, who is about to get married to his girlfriend, partly because she’s his cleaner and partly because they bonk each other constantly.
There’s never much depth to the ensemble, though, and it’s not for lack of trying: the scripts attempt to introduce threads to thicken the plot surrounding each character (Gil’s daughter signs up to a reality TV show about kids in D.C.), but we never engage with them enough for this become a character-driven sitcom. It’s no coincidence, you could argue, that the opening credits actually have to remind us of each person’s name before the series can continue.
The performers do their best with the material. Malloy, in particular, milks his role as the enjoyably dim Louis, who is shocked when his aide turns out to be a lesbian and completely oblivious to other people’s pained expressions, as he rehearses a stand-up routine about getting a bill through congress. It’s not unlike the programme’s own problem: gags about Washington are a hard sell.
“We should war room it,” says one, when planning how to deal with the day’s latest problem. “You know we don’t actually have a war room,” replies another.
The world is believably realised, from the big, wooden desks to the nonsense of everyday bureaucracy. Consuelos dealing with a non-crisis crisis involving a falling light during a speech (nicknamed “Gaffergate”) is wryly observed. But once you’ve established the imcompetence of the Republican party as your main angle, with no compelling dramatic narrative, what else is there?
There are certainly enjoyable moments to be found – particularly for politics nerds or fans of John Goodman and Bill Murray (who makes a cameo in Episode 1) – it’s just a shame they aren’t more biting. The humour is happy to take aim at broad targets and casually shrugs if it misses. Compared to Amazon’s recently released Transparent, a complex show with character-driven drama and comedy in abundance, Alpha House doesn’t quite do enough to get your vote. In a crowded TV race, this is a candidate that feels confident in its own identity, but never establishes that identity beyond not being the same as its opponents. But hey, elections have been won on less.