It’s hard to mock Washington these days because Washington is doing such a good job of mocking itself. Our politics have become parody, and political comedy has become redundant. It’s why 1600 Penn didn’t resonate with anyone. Veep has scored decent ratings and offers a few laughs per episode, but it doesn’t seem to have much to say and hasn’t really made an impact. Even the political dramas are humdrum. The highly-anticipated House of Cards was met with a collective shrug, and Political Animals came and went without a peep. These shows aim to take Congress down a peg, but the sad truth is that Congress is already on the lowest peg, courtesy of an historically-low 11% approval rating.
Because of this problem, Alpha House – a new pilot from Amazon Studios that will only get a full order if people like you and me respond well to it – seems destined to fail or at least eke out a modest victory. The pilot does not seem to break any new ground, but it’s smart enough and just funny enough to make me want to see what happens next. The first scene alone, which features a splendid, profanity-laden tantrum from guest star Bill Murray, was enough to hook me.
The story is meant to be ridiculous, but it’s loosely based on true story. Four members of Congress (played by John Goodman, Clark Johnson, Matt Malloy, and Mark Consuelos) live together in an apartment in DC, where they engage in frat-boy antics while trying to avoid doing any actual work. Garry Trudeau, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist who wrote the pilot, was inspired by the real living arrangements of four prominent Democrats – Rep. George Miller, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Bill Delahunt – who room together on Capitol Hill. Trudeau says he made his characters Republicans because they are easier to make fun of than Democrats.
And, indeed, the jokes do come easily. Each character is cut from the same cloth – their collective goal is to avoid work – but is given a few traits of distinction. Sen. Bettencourt (Johnson) is the smartest and the most serious of the group. He uses the opportunity of a talking filibuster of a clean energy bill to pump up some of his corporate sponsors, then just hands over his talking points for an unprepared colleague to repeat. Sen. Laffer (Malloy) is a dimwit from Nevada who succeeds by appealing to the lowest common denominator; while accepting an award from a group that promotes “normal marriage,” he gets distracted by the thought of two women together. Sen. Guzman (Consuelos) is a womanizing freshman, probably a rising star in the party like Marco Rubio. His character is the least defined so far, but his role as the token Latino might be a meta joke about the way minorities are treated within the GOP.
Sen. Gil John Biggs (Goodman) is the glue of the group, perhaps the laziest man in Congress. He drinks heavily and often falls asleep at his desk. He avoids a trip to Afghanistan to thank the troops, pledging to “make a video” instead. He is also the only one in the group with a real problem: after years of token challengers, a hero college basketball coach has thrown his hat into the ring. For the first time in a long time, Biggs will have to campaign. “You’re in a real race now,” his wife tells him, summing up what will presumably be the show’s arc. “You can’t just sit in your little man-cave, waiting to be re-elected.”
The assured tone and solid cast is enough to keep me interested and hopeful that Amazon will make more episodes – if the creative combination of Trudeau and John Goodman is not enough for a full order, I’ve had it with this business. Still, there were really not a lot of laughs in the pilot and even less substantial insight. I mostly enjoyed the small touches, like the bowl of flag lapel pins the foursome keeps on their kitchen table. But as I mentioned in my intro, the real hindrance here is the subject matter itself.
There is just nothing special about politics anymore. Not only do we largely despise politicians, but politics itself is ubiquitous, especially in our entertainment. After The West Wing engaged a young generation in politics, Obama activated them – now the networks are trying to take advantage of this engaged demographic, resulting in a glut of political content on TV. But is it too much? While every month seems to bring a new political show and another historic blunder in Congress, will our appetite for dramatic political content begin to wane? Mine certainly has, but I’m more than willing to give Trudeau and Goodman the chance to find something original to say. When the pilot ended, I wanted to know what happened next, and that’s enough. At the very least, there is the chance for another Bill Murray cameo.