Electric Review

Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms

Alpha House

ALPHA HOUSE. Created and Written by Garry Trudeau. Directed by Adam Bernstein. Amazon Studios.

Alpha-House-Title-Sequence-by-Imaginary-ForcesSupposedly, back in the late 1970s, a woman gained a certain anonymous fame by asking, “How can Trudeau run a big country like Canada and still have time to draw that comic strip?” She had confused the then-Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, with Garry Trudeau, creator of the “Doonesbury” strip. A silly mistake, to be sure, but understandable in this way: both men were iconic figures of the moderate left who successfully resisted and stood firm during the receding tide of liberalism.

Today, that woman’s daughter might well ask, “How can Trudeau be head of a major Canadian political party, with a good chance of being Canada’s next Prime Minister, and draw that comic strip AND write a TV show all at the same time?”

The Canadian Trudeau, head of the Liberal party, is Justin Trudeau, oldest son of the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and polls show that if there was a Federal election today, the Liberals would easily reclaim Parliament, and he would be Prime Minister. The American Trudeau is still Garry, still writing “Doonesbury” and now the creator and writer of a new media video show, “Alpha House”.

Garry Trudeau didn’t have time to write Doonesbury, work on “Alpha House” and explain to people that he doesn’t live in Ottawa and wouldn’t go there on a bet. So he took a summer-long sabbatical from “Doonesbury” to work on “Alpha House” after the successful debut of the pilot convinced Amazon (the vast Walmartian-style online clearing house) that a series was worth pursuing.

I saw the pilot when it came out in early summer, and my response was luke-warm. It felt like a frat house sitcom, and all it really needed was a drunken John Belushi in a toga. In the second episode, we do actually get a hungover, naked John Goodman in a shower curtain.

If the pilot seemed a bit rudderless, the second show featured a much sharper focus. I expected a superior product from Garry Trudeau doing a political satire, and the pilot, while decent, wasn’t stellar.

However, the second show featured the elements I expected. Trudeau has always been a master of sly, slightly self-deprecating irony, and it is what makes his strip worth reading even has he has veered away from direct political satire into a broader social satire. The strip is written and drawn, of necessity, in the omnipresent mode. The artist—and thus the reader—sees everything that is going on, even things the central character is not aware of. But Trudeau does point of view better than anyone, and in any of his strips, there’s never any doubt what the point of view is. You view the clean lines of his world through the eyes of Mike, or Zonker, or BD, or any of the 350 or so other characters he juggles in his long-running strip.

The same narrative talents are on display here. Doonesbury began in the antediluvian 70s with four college students in “Walden Commune.” “Alpha House” is four Republican Senators sharing a Brownstone flat in Washington. There’s a wimp, a sleaze, a campus hero, and…well, John Goodman. His character, Senator Gil John Biggs (univerally known as “Gil John”) doesn’t categorize well, but probably comes pretty close to the dismal view so many Americans take of Congress. Except he’s likeable. He’s both repellent and attractive, as only John Goodman could manage.

Goodman has played a Republican Congressman before. In Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” he was the imposing and even terrifying Speaker of The House, and amidst one of the most stellar casts ever assembled for a TV series, he stole the show.

In the second episode, he was clearly the main character, but there’s little doubt that Trudeau intends for this to be an ensemble show. The Sleaze (Clark “Slappy”Johnson as Sen. Robert Bettencourt) is sweating a grand jury indictment, and facing a charge of Conduct Unbecoming from the House Ethics Committee. The Campus Stud (Mark Conseullos as Senator Andy Guzman) has a hilarious scene where he’s having a “nooner” (a lunch break quickie) with a secretary, and they both simultaneously have loud angry shouting matches over their cell phones and then, without pause, return to tender canoodling. The Wimp (Matt Malloy as Senator Louis Laffer, Jr.) unwisely goes on the Colbert Report (with Stephen Colbert on his ‘Re-por’ set) and is conned into a wrestling match with Colbert, and the video, to his intense embarrassment, goes viral. Goodman does unspeakably vile things with an affable and self-assured panache. Prepare to be revolted and amused, simultaneously.

Bill Murray is one of the supporting Senatorial characters, and how cool is that? More cameos are in the offing.

Two episodes isn’t much to judge a show on, but the second episode has established itself well enough that I plan to keep watching.

Amazon has a screwy set up, though. The first three episodes are free, but the format used is not one PCs can easily download or view. You should have one of the supported devices, many of which, oddly enough, are made and sold by Amazon, such as the Kindle. After episode three, I’ll have to determine what I want to do. The show is good, but not so good that I’ll run out and buy a Kindle. Lest I sound like an old codger who is complaining bitterly that the show isn’t available on Eight-track, part of the problem is that they want you to download DRMS software before Silverlight will even consider letting you view or download it, and I’m deeply skeptical of any nanny state limitation imposed jointly by Microsoft and Amazon.

Still: Trudeau and Goodman. You just can’t go too far wrong there.

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson

© Bryan Zepp Jamieson. All rights reserved.


Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and spent his formative years living in various parts of Canada, the UK, South Africa and Australia before finally moving to the United States, where he has lived for over 40 years. Aside from writing, his interests include hiking, raising dogs and cats, and making computers jump through hoops. His wife of 25 years edits his copy, and bravely attempts to make him sound coherent. Reach him through The Electric Review.

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This entry was posted on December 2, 2013 by in 2013, December 2013, Guest Reviews, In the Spotlight, Quick Picks, Television and tagged , , .
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