“Alpha House,” a new sitcom premiering Friday via Amazon, is the first fruit of the Amazon Studios pilot derby, which this spring gave ordinary citizens with Internet access a chance to rate and comment on a variety of pilots. The retailer-cum-streaming-service has set itself up alongside Netflix and Hulu as a New Force in Television (or “television”) to contend with, and, on this evidence, to welcome.
Of the eight comedies Amazon offered for inspection (along with six children’s shows), “Alpha House” was clearly the most likely to succeed. (“Betas,” a Silicon Valley sitcom, will also become a series.) Written by “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau -- also Robert Altman’s collaborator on the HBO political comedy “Tanner ’88" -- it stars John Goodman as one of four Republican senators sharing a townhouse at variously close quarters. Its look and feel and language are pure HBO/Showtime, though the party specificity is the sort of thing liable to keep it off “regular” TV (and argue in the bargain for such alternative venues as these).
Still, notwithstanding real-world references (some remarkably current), its points are less about policies than politics, and less about politics than about character. (So it is with “Doonesbury,” if you regard the long arc.) Indeed, on one level, it’s just “The Odd Couple,” doubled, a story of often exasperated mutual support. Trudeau’s regard seems more affectionate than not.
Though each of the roomie senators -- also including actors Clark Johnson (the Smart One), Mark Consuelos (the Cute One) and Matt Malloy (the Possibly Gay and in Denial One, but definitely the Felix of the bunch) -- comes with his own matched set of personal baggage and ethical blind spots, each is also in his way likable good company. Lacking much in the way of ideology (or, in some cases, ideas), their cynicism plays, paradoxically, as practical and refreshing. White, black, white (possibly gay) and Latino, they also represent a diversity not at the moment associated with the Republican Party, but which looks good on it -- again, notwithstanding their comic faults.
Big and floppy and perennially fatigued, Goodman (who is especially good here) is a Southern senator and former basketball coach whose only agenda -- his wife’s agenda, really, expressed on conference calls from back home -- is to stay a senator. (“Everybody in the state knows my record,” he says. “Two undefeated seasons, 11 conference titles, two national championships.”) Goodman has the historical star power here, but Johnson, from “The Wire,” as the character who best takes the measure of his milieu (and likes to match make among congressional staffers, on the side) may be the series’ center of gravity.
Not every element is equally successful -- jokes about Twitter and YouTube should probably not be written (or spoken) by anyone over the age of 30, although it’s funny when Goodman substitutes “virile” for “viral” -- and there is something a little old-fashioned, too, about Malloy’s character’s apparent self-delusion (a married Mormon, he asserts his straightness, but he knows a Von Furstenberg from a handsaw) and Consuelo’s Latin lover.
But it’s an accomplished piece of work. And it gains heft from a number of impressive cameos, the first of which features Bill Murray, as the senators’ soon-to-be-former roommate, cursing a blue streak, shaving, brushing his teeth and combing his hair -- simultaneously -- as agents of the Department of Justice arrive to cart him off to prison. (Soon Goodman will be wearing his grease-stained tie to work.) Cynthia Nixon appears as an across-the-aisle colleague, Wanda Sykes as an across-the-aisle next-door neighbor, and Stephen Colbert, as Stephen Colbert, wrestles.