TV Picks: ‘Alpha House,’ ‘Eagleheart,’ JFK on TCM, Lincoln by wire


“Alpha House” (Amazon). Yonder comes the first fruit of Amazon Studios’ semi-innovative pilot derby, upon which I reported and opined at length last spring — see here, here and here — marking its arrival as a producer of original streaming content alongside Netflix and Hulu. Of the eight contending comedies offered for public inspection (of which “Betas,” a Silicon Valley sitcom, has also “gone to series”), it was clearly the heavyweight, with a script by “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau, cameos from Bill Murray (cursing) and Stephen Colbert (wrestling), and John Goodman in a starring role as one of four Republican senators sharing a cramped townhouse. Big and floppy and perennially fatigued, Goodman is in excellent form here as a Southern senator whose only agenda is to stay a senator. “Everybody in the state knows my record,” he says. “Two undefeated seasons, 11 conference titles, two national championships.”

The series’ look and feel and language are pure HBO/Showtime, though the Republican Party specificity is the sort of thing that would tend to keep it off a mainstream network. Still, it’s less a political comedy than one of character and clashing characters (at close quarters). And though each of the senators — also including Clark Johnson (the Smart One, and the series’ center of gravity), Mark Consuelos (the Cute One, and its center of sex) and Matt Malloy (the Possibly Gay one) — comes with his own set of personal baggage and ethical blind spots, each is also in his way good company. Their professional cynicism, in that it lacks ideology, 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.

Amazon has made the first three episodes available online for free. Subsequent viewing requires a subscription.


FALL TV 2013: Watch the trailers

“Eagleheart: Paradise Rising” (Adult Swim, Thursdays). Chris Elliot’s congenital strangeness has kept him seemingly on the verge of extinction, pop culturally, but he’s a species, a species of one, worth saving. (His is a talent and sensibility — irony indistinguishable from exuberance — that was practically pre-made for the sanctuary of Adult Swim; that is to say, he was a little before his still yet to completely arrive time.) The highly cinematic — or I should say, relatively highly cinematic — Elliot-starring third season of what looks for a moment like a parody of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” before devolving into all manner of (frequently unappetizing) oddity, will link its episodes into a larger whole, triggered by the death of Eagleheart’s partner Brett (Brett Gelman). Partner Susie, played by Maria Thayer, is not yet dead.

JFK on film (TCM, Thursday). Six ways of looking at a president, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Four of these films, excitingly, are by cinéma vérité/direct cinema pioneer Robert Drew and offer the kind of intimate access that politicians have since learned to avoid. (That’s not to say there wasn’t political hay to be made from them, the idea of such access being both new and very much of its time.) “Primary” (1960), shot in Wisconsin as Kennedy battled Sen. Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic Party presidential nomination; “Adventures on the New Frontier” (1961), a view from inside the Oval Office, undertaken as a kind of test run — Kennedy wanted to see if it were possible to forget the cameras — for what would become “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment” (1963), in which the president faced down Gov. George Wallace over the integration of the University of Alabama; and “Faces of November” (1964), a kind of group portrait of the Kennedy funeral, expressed in the visages of its participants. Also airing are “Four Days in November” (1964), Mel Stuart’s quickly marshaled look back at the assassination and its aftermath; and “PT109” (1963), the Hollywood picturization of Kennedy’s World War II memoir, with Cliff Robertson as the once and future president.

FULL COVERAGE: Fall TV preview 2013

“Lincoln@Gettysburg” (PBS, Tuesday). There are anniversaries other than that of the Kennedy assassination this month; Nov. 19 marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, the little speech Abraham Lincoln made in 1863 to dedicate the cemetery built to accommodate the thousands killed that June in the famous Civil War battle. There are a few linked ideas here: first, that Lincoln was the first president for whom the telegraph was a strategic tool, both in the waging of the Civil War (it allowed him to remotely enter the tents of his generals, much to their displeasure, to query and command them, and also to gather information to chart and analyze Confederate movements over a great expanse of territory with modern speed and simultaneity) and in selling it. The point is repeatedly made that the 16th president understood spin and media in a new and modern way. “Lincoln would have been big time on Twitter,” says one commentator, with speculative assurance. (And if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing for television.) “He would have been pithy and short and smart and inspirational — and a little snarky.”

Finally, though it stops short of claiming actual cause-and-effect, there is the notion that his address at Gettysburg — in its 272-word, 10-sentence perfection — was itself telegraphic, marvelously packed, pointed and compressed in a time when popular oratory was florid and feature-length. (Politician-turned-professional-orator Edward Everett, the actual main act at Gettysburg, spoke for two hours, using 50 times as many words as Lincoln.) The documentary suffers from a surfeit visual hectoring — absurd flash cuts and photo effects and title cards more appropriate to basic-cable series about murderers or haunted mansions — and there is too much use of a man in a Lincoln suit, who never looks like anything more than a man in a Lincoln suit, to illustrate imagined moments in the historical drama; none of that is fatal. Most profitably, there is a close reading of the document, whose brevity allowed it to be printed whole in newspapers across the country and which most American have since carried bits of in their mind. Tony Kushner, who wrote Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” and Colin Powell are among the non-academic talking heads. David Straitharn narrates, as is altogether fitting and proper.