As the cameras whirred, John Goodman read the paper at the kitchen table. Fellow actor Matt Malloy nervously washed dishes at the counter. A third performer, Mark Consuelos, scrolled though the morning’s news on his tablet.
“Gil, did you know Sarah Palin attacked you ... on her channel last night?” Consuelos’ character — like everyone else in the room, a politician — asked Goodman.
The burly actor said no, then, a moment later, replied with deadpan timing: “Sarah Palin has a channel?”
The exchange was part of an upcoming scene in “Alpha House,” the low-key, inside-the Beltway comedy created by Garry Trudeau for Amazon’s Hollywood operation. It characterized the dry, insider humor the “Doonesbury” veteran aims for — and the reason the show is both a change-of-pace from its politically themed competitors and, perhaps, also not as well known as they are.
Less soapy than “House of Cards” and more understated than “Veep,” “Alpha House” seeks a different tone amid the bigger hooks and more extreme content of premium TV content. It centers on four legislators, all Republicans — Gil John Biggs (Goodman), Andy Guzman (Consuelos), Louis Laffer (Malloy) and Robert Bettencourt (Clark Johnson) — who live together, negotiating personal and professional challenges, sometimes with a creative sense of ethics.
“Alpha House” is inspired by a D.C. housing situation: Three lawmakers — Sen. Charles Schumer (D.-N.Y.), Sen. Richard Durbin (D.-Ill.) and Rep. George Miller (R.-Calif.) — have bunked together in frat-like conditions for decades. When all 10 episodes of the show’s second season hit the site on Friday (unlike last year, Amazon is taking the all-at-once approach popularized by Netflix), “Alpha House” will attempt to attract viewers with a mix of odd-couple sitcom tropes and the texture of real-life Washington.
“What we set out to do is a show that’s not cynical or mean-spirited,” Trudeau said. “It’s a comedy with a lot of heart and people you hopefully want to stick with, like a lot of comedies. But we also want it to feel like it’s of our day and time in Washington.”
The first season found characters confronting election challenges (Gil John, a North Carolina college-hoops coaching legend who’d been coasting on his name for a while), personal crises (Louis, grappling with his sexuality and a moment of accidental heroism overseas) and ethical conflagration (Robert and Andy, in various ways).
The new season opens with a cameo from Trudeau’s wife, Jane Pauley, and an incarcerated Bill Murray, a callback to last season’s first episode, when Murray’s disgraced senator oversleeps the day he’s supposed to turn himself in to authorities. Then it plunges into this year’s dilemmas, which among other things will focus on Andy and Gil John’s election campaigns (the former is definitively running for president). When a crisis for Andy blows up quickly, one of his advisers tells him: “This is the fastest I’ve ever seen something become a '-gate.’”
The idea for a show based on the real-life house had been kicking around for years — Al Franken had been trying to get one made before he became a Washington insider himself — with Trudeau, longtime Newsweek journalist Jonathan Alter and former Hollywood agent Elliot Webb behind this incarnation. Trudeau (who created the “Tanner” political comedy franchise for HBO) and Alter have known each other for two decades, after the former broke his self-imposed no-interview rule to cooperate on a big story in the 1990s. They believed “Alpha House” was dead after pay cable outlets passed, but a while later, Amazon, looking to up its original-programming efforts, stepped in.
On the Queens, N.Y., soundstage last month — just across the lot from the set of a rather different environment, “Orange Is the New Black” — Trudeau was a mythic presence, slipping from the set up the stairs to his office, where he feverishly writes episodes one step ahead of the production schedule in a bid for timeliness, among other things. Trudeau weaves plenty of call-outs into “Alpha House” — from the obvious (Guzman’s White House bid is a thinly veiled Marco Rubio plot line) to the more winking (Bettencourt’s reflexive need to bring congressional staffers together for love connections is an homage to Schumer, a notorious matchmaker).
“There are so many shows where they try to get everything right, and then they get a committee name wrong, and I always think, Why would you do that?” Alter said.
Laughed Trudeau. “My goal is verisimilitude, but I think for Jon that’s a low bar. He wants accuracy.”
Alter, an executive producer, serves as the show’s political conscience and, not insignificantly, its unofficial casting director for the power-elite, rounding up some of the biggest names in news.
The first season was rife with cameos — Schumer, Chris Matthews, Stephen Colbert — and the new season is no exception. On the day after the visit, Elizabeth Warren would make her way to the set. (It helps that everyone on the show seems to have a media connection — Trudeau is married to Pauley, Alter’s wife works with Colbert, and Consuelos’ wife is Kelly Ripa, who has also appeared.)
The sound stage features both the colorful house (think a certain kind of presidential art), while several Senate offices are recreated with some flourishes of their own, including a slot machine in Nevadan Louis’ office and a “hideaway” for Andy, a nicer space than his actual office that allows for some, er, extracurricular activities. (Alter notes that the hideaway, at least, is a time-honored Capitol Hill tradition.)
The actors are quick to note there are limits to the real-life parallels, however. “From what I hear Marco Rubio is a serious family guy,” said Conseulos of his potential D.C. avatar as he alluded to Andy’s womanizing and general slickness. “If you’re making comparisons, it’s maybe a little bit of John Edwards with some Silvio Berlusconi and a dash of Anthony Villagairossa.
“Alpha House” is by now a veteran series of Amazon Studios, having returned for a second season after the other canary in the coal mine, the Silicon Valley-set “Betas,” wasn’t renewed.
With the company taking the same path as Netflix and declining to release numbers, it’s difficult to judge the first season’s popularity. But the series hopes to pick up traction in part due to spillover interest from this season’s midterm elections. It also may experience a halo effect from “Transparent,” the buzzy Jeffrey Tambor series that in the past few months has built awareness for Amazon’s programming efforts.
Roy Price, who runs Amazon Studios, notes that the service has grown since “Alpha House” came online last year and also describes the show’s broad appeal. “It’s not about passing House Bill 3217,” he said. “They are sympathetic, differentiated characters you could fall for. They’re funny, but in a real way, not a super-jokey way.”
Despite those sympathetic elements, the show has drawn fire from some pundits on the right, who say that by focusing on Republicans, Trudeau is using the show to shoot ideological fish in a barrel.
But Trudeau says the choice isn’t driven by ideology.
“The story now is clearly the Republicans. Three of these four guys went to Washington in this pre-Ted Cruz era, and they’re used to working a certain way, and now they have to negotiate a set of positions they don’t actually subscribe to because of the rise of the tea party,” he said. “It’s just dramatically more interesting. I don’t know what the hell I would have done with four Democrats in a house.”
He said that working on the show is a switch from “Doonesbury” (the strip remains on hiatus). “It is different. I’m going from being a solitary creator to a manager. And in the strip you can let your imagination run freely, but on a show there are budget constraints.”
But he said he’s sought ways to break the rules even here.
“Normally on a sitcom,” he said, “you don’t have a slugline ‘Bagram Airfield: Belly of a Cargo Plane.’”
Where: Amazon Instant Video
When: Available starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)