Which is more representative of the wonders of this whiz-bang age—the latest crap from one of the networks or studios, streaming ghostlike into your home and shrunk to the size of a cellphone for repeated or intermittent viewing, or the crap from some era long ago, resuscitated and now living forever on some forgotten corner of the Internet?
It’s a trick question! They are both still crap!
Put another way: what makes something truly new at a time when the old order has been destroyed? Is it form or content?
The questions present themselves on the occasion of Amazon dipping its digital finger into the river of original content production with Alpha House—a comedy about four United States Senators crashing in a shared bachelor pad in Washington D.C as they navigate the corridors of power—available alongside another comedy about Silicon Valley start-ups for streaming on Friday.
That Amazon is making its own shows has been enough to dress up the early coverage of Alpha House in a frock of newness, as if this tidal wave of creative destruction we have been living through would soon mean that Walmart set up its own overseas factory to manufacture microwaves or the local multiplex said screw it and starting making movies their own self.
But while how you get the thing may matter to marketers or to chroniclers of the newest newness, the comedy is still the thing, and Alpha House falls too easily into groan-worthy (if not cringe-worthy) predictable sitcom pablum. It is hard to believe that in 2013 any television show, much less one aimed at younger cord-cutters can get away with gay jokes, but Matt Malloy plays Louis Laffer, a prissy Nevada senator who seems to be a little light in the loafers if ya know whadda mean, eh, eh? No? Permit the show then to nub you in the ribs over and over and over as Laffer comments on his aides’ fashion sense, flubs sports references, sweats out an airplane ride to Afghanistan (yes, he insists on wearing the Kevlar vest even while airborne) or slips into sexual innuendo while accepting an award from anti-gay marriage group.
Not hip to Three’s Company-era gay gags? Well, fortunately there is a saucy sex-crazed Latino in the group, Senator Andy Guzman, (played by Mark Consuelos) and his equally saucy, equally sex-crazed paramour, played by Yara Martinez. When they swear histrionically into their cellphones, or she goes on a Saks Fifth Avenue shopping spree when she was meant to go buy paper towels (aiyiyi, mi cabeza!,) what precisely are we supposed to be laughing at? Is there a sassy but kindly Black female lawmaker who lives next door the quartet, speaking sense to men and not taking no guff? Do you have to even ask?
It was perhaps possible to get away with these gags under two conditions: one, they happened on network television, where the lowest common denominator has long reigned supreme; and two, they happened twenty-five years ago. But in an era of episodic, thoughtful television, comedies that forge new ground and somehow speak to the age, and yes, the ability to dial up anything anywhere anytime, Alpha House feels like you programmed the VCR to tape so you can watch it after the kids have gone to bed.
Alpha House is made by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, with an assist from longtime political journalist Jonathan Alter. It is based on real events, or rather, an article about real events—a 2007 article in the New York Times about four Democratic lawmakers (Sens. Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin and Reps. George Miller and Bill Delahunt) who likewise share a D.C. domicile when Congress is in session. Politics may be the last refuge of those who lack rudimentary skills in the art of irony, but the four here take nothing too seriously—not their party, not their committees, not their constituents—an attitude played for laughs in the manner of slacker comedies everywhere.
Here, Sen. Gil John Biggs, a legendary Tarheel former basketball coach played (brilliantly, of course) by John Goodman is snapped out of his otherwise political indifference when another former basketball legend—the head coach of archrival Duke—announces a primary challenge. Laffer has one too, from a strong-jawed Nevadan wolf hunter, and since Pennsylvania Senator Robert Bettincourt (played by Clark Johnson) is facing an ethics investigation and Guzman is trying to set himself up Marco Rubio-like for a run for president, the quartet take a Republican Party-pushed junket to Afghanistan to get photographed around some tough looking GI’s and even tougher looking machine guns.
When Alpha House is at its best is when strays from the sight gags based on the actors appearance—Goodman’s weight or Johnson’s race—and hews closely to the way Washington really works. The way the lawmakers browbeat aides, or live in fear of being caught having a cordial conversation with a Democrat or slip kind words for fundraisers into the Congressional record.
Which is the thing about Washington. The place is so images-obsessed, so full of strivers, and so far beyond any normally functioning human endeavor that it does not require a lot of pranks and pratfalls to look ridiculous. Just watch Jon Stewart any night of the week.
The Times article that the show is based on is by Mark Leibovich, the author of this summer’s highly touted This Town. The difference between Leibovich’s book and Alpha House is that the book is actually funny, mostly since it relies on Leibovich’s wicked and willingness to dish on everything he knows about Washington but that is kept off-camera most of the time. Here, Arianna Huffington’s book about the decline of the middle class is honored with a book party featuring embroider pillows that say “Third World America”; Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader and a Mormon offers the author a drink by saying, “They said I’m supposed to offer you a drink, so that’s what I ‘m doing. If anyone asks, tell them I offered you a drink.”; and the supposed exoticism of a Republican and Democratic talking head (in this case James Carville and Mary Matalin) is shown to be not exotic at all but part and parcel of the D.C. incestuous green room culture (“If either of them had been in love with a tree surgeon from Idaho, that really would have been something.)
It is nearly impossible to not laugh out loud at the real Washington—and to do so without even the slightest soreness in ribs from a nudge-nudge, wink-wink.