Real World Capitol
Inside the Political Fun House: How ‘Alpha House’ Became Amazon’s First Big Hit
Free shipping and a TV show? It seemed crazy, but thanks to the success of the political comedy Alpha House, Amazon is officially a player in the original series business.
On the wall of the Alpha House set in Queens, New York, one of President George W. Bush’s infamous paintings hangs, from where it will play a pivotal part in the second season premiere of Amazon’s political comedy.
“I think I saw it on Buzzfeed,” chirps the daughter of Senator Louis Laffer (Matt Molloy), who purchased the so-called masterpiece. “What was he thinking?” Laffer’s wife, played by Amy Sedaris gasps upon seeing it, her husband beaming with pride at it, ignorant of his family’s dismay.
To be truthful, it’s not a genuine Bush painting as much as it is an extremely, almost indiscernibly close approximation of a Bush original: a crudely crafted, vaguely and uncomfortably sexual self-portrait of Dubya’s legs in a bathtub. It looks so real. And very nearly was.
“We actually wanted to use a real painting, one of the ones that had been on the Internet,” Garry Trudeau tells me. Trudeau, the famed Pulitzer Prize-winning artist behind the Doonesbury comic, co-created, writes, and is showrunner for Alpha House. “Despite our assurances that the first amendment still works in the case and that we could do this and that no president had ever sued anybody, the Amazon legal dept balked, so we changed it slightly.”
It’s actually rather fitting, and perhaps funnier, that the Alpha House team was forced to approximate the real thing in order to make the gag work for the show. After all, that’s the secret sauce flavoring the Amazon experiment’s success.
Alpha House very much reflects a real-world political universe where Obama is president, real-life politicos appear as themselves, but reflects it through a funhouse mirror that only the sensibility of Garry Trudeau could create—he even calls it “Doonesbury in 3D.” The result is a political satire that’s the epitome of the saying, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Or at least could be true.
“The comedy pops for discerning viewers more if it feels real,” producer Jonathan Alter, a longtime political journalist (and, full disclosure: currently a columnist for The Daily Beast), says. While the exploits of its core characters—four Republican senators—can veer towards the preposterous at times, it’s always against the backdrop of the real world.
“What’s always annoyed me about political movies or shows is when they’re unnecessarily inaccurate,” Alter says. “Instead of just using the proper name of the senate committee, they make up the committee name. They’d never be careless about costumes or sets or that kind of thing. But when it comes to politics they don’t care. Even though we’re a comedy we usually don’t do that. We would reject a lot of stories that would pass muster on nine other political shows."
Enter Season 2 of Alpha House, the ten episodes of which debut simultaneously Friday on Amazon Prime.
One of two pilots the online-retailer-turned-streaming-service ordered to series last year, the comedy is, accordingly, Amazon Prime’s first big hit. (How big, we’ll never know. Like Netflix, Amazon doesn’t release viewership metrics.)
Its original premise, by now, should be well known: It’s inspired by the curious housing situation of three D.C. lawmakers—Sen. Charles Schumer, Sen. Richard Durbin, and Rep. George Miller—who have shared a bachelor pad while working at the Capitol for decades.
The residents of Alpha House are four fictionalized Republicans—Gil John Biggs (John Goodman), Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos), Louis Laffer (Matt Malloy), and Robert Bettencourt (Clark Johnson)—who debate whose turn it is to wash the dishes at home in between debating pressing legislation on the Senate floor. “They’re living in a house and sharing food one minute, and then in the office debating the greatest issues of our time the next,” Trudeau says. “That’s the wonderful dichotomy.”
Turning the congressional fratpad into an Amazon TV series is an idea that was born out of one of Trudeau and Alter’s legendary road trips. Each year the friends would hunker down for a drive up to New Hampshire for the state’s primaries. In 2012, Trudeau was telling Alter about this pilot he had written and briefly shopped around to cable networks a few years earlier, but they all passed.
When Alter heard rumblings that Amazon was getting into the content business the way that Netflix was, he sent them Trudeau’s script and they bought it. When he initially told Trudeau about the potential deal, the Doonesbury legend was nervous. “I don’t want to make a $10,000 YouTube video,” Alter remembers Trudeau telling him.
His worries were eventually assuaged. “From the beginning they said they wanted to be competitive with HBO,” Trudeau says. “They wanted to look like HBO shows.” And from the start, with top-notch production values certainly upgraded from a “YouTube video,” Alpha House did.
To boot, walking through the Alpha House set in Queens is akin to seeing a large-scale version of the Bush painting trick the creative team pulled off.
Thanks to a pre-production field trip to the District, just about every single thing about the recreated congressional offices is a keen-eyed replica of the real thing—albeit with some satirical flare. A photoshopped photo of Goodman’s Gil John Biggs with Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush hangs on one wall, for example. In Malloy’s Sen. Laffer’s office, the “Say No to Sodomy” trophy the character won from the Council for Normal Marriage sits proudly on a shelf. (It should come as no surprise that Laffer’s driving story arc in Season 1 was his ambiguous sexual orientation—isn’t this one area of politics that typically falls under the “thou doth protest too much” banner?)
Even the bachelor pad the congressmen share is built to scale for the actors to walk through, complete with a second floor for their bedrooms.
On this particular day, Goodman is in the kitchen with the actress playing his daughter and a fake reality TV camera crew. One of Gil John’s storylines this season follows his begrudging participation in his daughter’s reality series, The Real Daughters of D.C., after realizing that it could actually help his campaign.
From behind a curtain, Trudeau is politely coaching the actors through the scene, encouraging them to go bigger. “We call him a WASP Mensch,” Alter says of his partner-in-crime’s leadership style. “He’s just a good guy.”
Both Trudeau and Alter, levelheaded as they are, are extremely meticulous about their production. Alter recounts hours spent poring over details to make the politics on the show as accurate as possible—a voter suppression storyline was changed from Ohio to Florida to reflect a real-life case.
In one scene in the Season 1 finale, Goodman’s Gil John attended a gay wedding and surveyed the placecards to see if another senator had been invited. The production team altered the name they had originally planned to use in case it was considered too close to the truth and an act of outing the senator. In the end, they went for a more comedic choice: Rand Paul.
They are also as adamant about the tone they want to strike.
Politics is inherently easy to make fun of. Tune in to The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live, or Veep, among other shows, for evidence of that. But it’s rare to, as Alpha House strives to, achieve the balance of, as Alter puts it, “heart and bite.”
“There’s other shows that are very funny and really edgy,” he says, “but the characters are cynical and unlikable. Our Republicans, even when they’re doing awful things, are lovable. We can take shots at them but like them at the same time.”
In doing so, they’ve created a safe space for Washington to laugh at itself.
“Somebody said to me after the premiere, ‘You guys have the most charming Republicans going,’” Molloy remembers. “I found that true. And disconcerting.” That tonal balance, though, is part of the appeal for the politicians who happily appear on the show, despite the fact that it is arguably spoofing their profession. “Politicians basically want to get out in front of anything,” Malloy says. “They want to be in on the joke.”
To hear its creative team tell it, too, the inside-the-Beltway appeal of Alpha House might be one of the few things that both sides of the aisle can agree on. “Democrats say, ‘The only Republicans I like are the ones I see on Alpha House,’” Alter says. “And Republicans like the show because they are treated humanely. They don’t expect that from Hollywood and they don’t expect that from liberals like me and Garry.”
That explains the impressive roster of guest stars the series has racked up of politicians playing themselves. Schumer, John McCain, David Axelrod, Anthony Weiner, Michael Steele, Grover Norquist, and Elizabeth Warren are among the politicos who have appeared or will appear on the show. Warren, in particular, impressed the cast, actually showing up to the New York set to film her spot. “It was a rock star moment,” Trudeau says. Rachel Maddow, too, apparently impresses in her upcoming season two guest turn.
Trudeau credits Goodman signing on for the Alpha House pilot as the initial watershed moment for the show, leading to the impressive cast and guest stars, political or otherwise, that have assembled (Bill Murray, Wanda Sykes, Amy Sedaris, Cynthia Nixon, and Stephen Colbert among them). When he agreed to star in it, Trudeau was as confused as he was overjoyed and surprised.
“I thought, ‘What does this guy know about streaming video that I don’t?’” Trudeau laughs. “Now you’ll see brand names involved with Amazon because there’s a comfort level. I think John Goodman was a breakthrough in that sense.”
For a while, Alpha House stood tall as Amazon’s first hit. But it was also its only hit. Betas, the other pilot that was ordered to series, wasn’t renewed for a second season.
Then, between Alpha House’s first and second seasons Transparent debuted. The series starring Jeffrey Tambor as a man who comes out to his family as a transgender woman was an instant critical success, garnering even better reviews than Alpha House did in its initial run, and was ordered for a second season much faster than Trudeau’s series was.
Plus, more big, marquee talent is coming. Mozart in the Jungle, starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Malcolm McDowell, and The After, from X-Files creator Chris Carter, are both premiering this winter.
Is Alpha House threatened?
“If Transparent emerges as a big hit then it’s only good for us,” Trudeau says. “We don’t feel like we need to be the only tentpole. If Transparent draws an audience that might not have otherwise discovered Alpha House, then that’s good.”
Besides, for all of the bougie L.A. real estate porn and rich-people problems that Transparent boasts—and boasts brilliantly—how could it possibly compete with a genuine (replica) Bush painting?