Amazon makes its own TV and does OK with 'Alpha House'

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From left to right: Mark Consuelos, John Goodman, Clark Johnson and Matt Malloy as the U.S. senators who room together in Amazon's "Alpha House."

If you don't think TV is in the midst of revolutionary change, go to this weekend and instead of buying a book or baby food, take a look at the online giant's original production of "Alpha House."

It's a political satire written and produced by "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau starring John Goodman and Clark Johnson. It's set in a house on Capitol Hill that four Republican members of the U.S. Senate share, and the first three episodes can be streamed for free this week.


To see the final eight episodes of season one, you'll have to join Amazon Prime — just as you had to become a Netflix subscriber in February to feast on the full first season of Kevin Spacey's political thriller "House of Cards," which finished filming its second season in Baltimore on Nov 8.

Comparisons are inescapable when you have two digital distribution giants both trying to be game changers as creators of original content with Washington-themed productions. But it's also important to appreciate how they are different to understand what TV as we've known it for more than 60 years is morphing into.


While Netflix in part based its decision to buy into "House of Cards" on its vast pool of data on subscribers' likes and dislikes for everything from actors to subject matter, Amazon took things one step further, putting 14 pilots online last spring and letting fans vote on which they wanted to see as a series.

"The fact that Netflix and Amazon are both doing shows about Washington and politics is just happenstance," says Jonathan Alter, an NBC News contributor and former Newsweek editor who is an executive producer on the Amazon series. "If we had lost in the fans' voting instead of won, then the first series might have been about zombies. The 'Zombieland' TV show was one of the other pilots."

The second-most-popular show in the voting at was "Betas," starring Ed Begley Jr., in a series about a Silicon Valley startup. It debuts Friday, Nov. 22.

"It's also a coincidence that the two shows that Amazon picked up are called 'Alpha House' and 'Betas,' " Alter adds, explaining that Amazon is not doing the Greek alphabet.

By the standards of TV comedy, "Alpha House" is not a cheap production. Amazon, which is known for being corporately tight with a buck, opened the checkbook and is said to be spending more than $1 million an episode. For a comedy, that's not bad. HBO's "Veep," which is made in Baltimore, is reportedly in the range of $1 million to $2 million per episode.

But don't expect the depth or texture found in "House of Cards." Part of that is genre: As a drama, "House of Cards" by definition should be grounded in a far richer, multilayered milieu.

But part of that is also money and the fact that the first two episodes of "House of Cards" were directed by David Fincher, a feature film director with a reputation for spending to get what he wants on the screen.

With a $100 million budget for 26 episodes from Netflix and the production company, Media Rights Capital, Fincher had more than $4 million an episode to make "House of Cards" look the way he wanted. The Baltimore Sun reported Fincher having the wall of a pharmacy in Bolton Hill repainted because he didn't like the way its color looked in a passing shot.


"We felt like we had the money we needed to do what we wanted," Alter says of the Amazon comedy. "We still had to budget carefully, and you can always use more. But this is a spending level that's comparable to quality cable shows."

Writing and acting are the strengths of "Alpha House," with Trudeau's keen satiric sensibility brought to life through engaging performances from a veteran cast led by Goodman and Johnson. Trudeau set the bar for political satire on television with HBO's "Tanner '88," a brilliant mockumentary that he wrote and Robert Altman directed about a presidential campaign in 1988.

Johnson is well known to Baltimore viewers for his acting and directing in "NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street:" and HBO's "The Wire," which were filmed here. Johnson, who directs the season finale of "Alpha House," is also acting and directing in Showtime's "Homeland" this season.

In "Alpha House," Johnson plays Sen. Robert Bettencourt, a Republican from Pennsylvania who has a history of being too accommodating to special interests. He's running for a fourth term in 2014 while being investigated by an ethics committee.

And even he looks down his nose, when it comes to freebies, at his housemate, Gil John Biggs (Goodman), who rode his winning record as basketball coach of the University of North Carolina right into the Senate. What Biggs, who is played with a wicked sense of entitlement by Goodman, mostly does in D.C. is eat and drink way too much while grabbing every perk pushed his way.

"You're a real perks guy, aren't you?" Bettencourt says to Biggs after hearing his colleague rhapsodizing about a hospitality suite to which he's been invited.


"Yes, I am a real perks guy," Biggs replies. "If you've earned them and you're worthy, then there's no shame to it."

The other two senators with whom Bettencourt and Biggs room are Louis Laffer (Matt Malloy), a Mormon from Nevada with masculinity issues, and Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos), a recently divorced Cuban-American who moves his latest lady friend into the house with him.

The humor is occasionally sitcom-broad, as with Bigg's bloodhound, Buster, wandering the halls of Congress. But it's mostly sharp-edged and politically savvy, with cameos from folks like Stephen Colbert, who is shown interviewing Laffer on a fake episode of "The Colbert Report."

Wanda Sykes and Cynthia Nixon also light up the screen when their characters appear in supporting roles. Nixon, by the way, was in "Tanner '88" and she was terrific way back then.

The comedy of "Alpha House" is further grounded in a sense of reality by references to real participants in the misery that is our national political life these days.

"One difference between our show and 'House of Cards' or 'Veep' or 'Scandal' is that our show is the only one where Barack Obama is president and Mitch McConnell is the Senate minority leader," Alter says. "We were very intent on setting it — even though it's a comedy — in a realistic framework.


"The first season is really about the 2014 Republican primaries," he adds. "Three of our characters have tea party primary challengers, and our fourth is laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign. When we say there are six members of the Senate Ethics Committee, there really are six members of the Senate Ethics Committee. Does that mean this is 'Meet the Press'? No, we have some fun and take a lot of satirical turns. But it is very much rooted in reality."

Much is being made of online series like "Alpha House" and "House of Cards" being the future of television. Alter, who was Newsweek's media critic for more than a decade and is now working within the belly of the TV beast, says it feels that way to him.

"We don't know exactly the shape of the future of television, but I feel a little bit like that guy in the movie, 'My Favorite Year,' about network television in the early 1950s," he says. "Or, maybe, I feel like someone who might have been working in cable television in the early 1980s. We feel like we're in on the launch of a new medium — something that looks like the television we all love but is distributed in a different way. And that's very exciting"

And if you join Amazon Prime to watch the whole season of "Alpha House," you could soon get Sunday delivery of that book or baby food you ordered, thanks to a new deal between Amazon and the U.S. Postal Service.

Welcome to the latest iteration of American television.


The first three episodes of "Betas" will be available Friday, Nov. 22.

Online: The first three episodes of "Alpha House" are available to stream at