The second season of the political sitcom "Alpha House" begins streaming on Amazon tonight. The series revolves around four fictional Republican senators who share a Washington, D.C. townhouse. It's written and produced by Garry Trudeau, creator of the comic strip "Doonesbury."
"Alpha House" was one of Amazon Studios’ first original productions. Amazon is notoriously tight-lipped about its data, so no one, including the producers of "Alpha House," knows how many people watched the first season. But when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos attended the premier of season one last fall, he and his family sat with the show’s creator, writer and executive producer Garry Trudeau.
"There are people who think of 'Alpha House' as kind of 3D Doonesbury."Garry Trudeau
"There are people who think of 'Alpha House' as kind of 3D Doonesbury, that has a lot of similarities in the way it’s organized and the way the stories are braided together and the extended family," Trudeau said. "We have up to 26 recurring or regular characters now, which is an awful lot for a sitcom."
Trideu says "Doonesbury" has a little short of 80 characters that appear on a regular basis, "but I built that up over 40 years."
Longtime fans of "Doonesbury" will recognize Trudeau’s touch in "Alpha House." It has the same astute political humor and stinging satire that has earned the comic strip legions of fans and a Pulitzer Prize. In season two of "Alpha House," the daughter of the North Carolina senator portrayed by John Goodman has her own reality TV show, "The Real Daughters of D.C."
In a clip from the show, the daughter says, "So, America is like this awesome house party that’s been going for almost 200 years and it’s our generation’s responsibility to keep the party goin’, you know. But me and the other D.C, daughters are totally big tent-ish about it because millennials are all about diversity. We don’t care whether you’re rich or white or educated or thin or too thin or rich. You name it, we don’t judge. Because we’re what America looks like now."
The send-up of the reality TV show was inspired, in part, by an actual show starring the daughter of Sen. John McCain, who along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, makes a cameo appearance in the second season of "Alpha House." In the sitcom, these fictional senators grapple with such hot button political issues as NSA spying, voter suppression and sexual assault in the military. And sometimes the art is close to being prophetic of real life. For example, two new characters, a composite of the Koch Brothers and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, are introduced in the form of drones bearing iPads.
"This is one of those jobs where you go to work and you can’t wait to say the words that the writer has written for you."Mark Consuelos
"It’s not quite as topical as we hope it feels, in the sense that it’s not perishable, it’s not so ephemeral that a few weeks later people are going to completely forget about the issue," said "Alpha House" creator Garry Trudeau. "They tend to be broader issues and political themes. But we do want to create the sense of freshness, of crackling authenticity."
On the set, Trudeau has developed a reputation for being a very detail-oriented executive producer. But it’s his abilities as a writer that have drawn John Goodman, Wanda Sykes and others into the "Alpha House" stable.
"This is one of those jobs where you go to work and you can’t wait to say the words that the writer has written for you," said Mark Consuelos, who plays Cuban-American senator Andy Guzman. The 43-year-old actor has movie star good looks. His character seduces his wedding planner and his fiancee busts him for bedding the Croatian house-keeper at the Alpha House.
"He’s unapologetic," Consuelos said. "He paints himself into a lot of corners. I think part of the reason he does that, ‘cause he enjoys weaseling his way out of it. He’s pretty slick — oily I would say. And he’s a womanizer. I would say my character’s like a cross between a John Edwards and a Sylvio Berlusconi."
Here's some dialogue from the show:
Senate aide: People think you’re the next John Edwards. No campaign wants to be put through that nightmare.
Sen. Guzman: What nightmare? I’m getting married for God’s sake.
Consultant: Which will just make it worse if you’re busted again. Right now nobody cares if you’re doing your housekeeper.
Sen. Guzman: How’d you know about that?
Consultant: All it took for me to flush out your latest bimbo was a lucky guess. And your housekeeper? She’s not an illegal?
Sen. Guzman: She won’t be. I’m working on it.
Sex and sexual preferences provide much fodder for the comedy here. The Mormon senator from Nevada seems to be a closeted gay man. When he spills the beans at a press conference that his lesbian chief of staff is both pregnant and about to marry the lesbian staffer of another Republican senator, emotions fly.
Senate aide: That was perfect. People are already tweeting about the GOP gay wedding. It’s a hashtag!
Senator’s chief of staff: We’re not getting married!
Senate aide: Oh?
Senator’s chief of staff: I’ve got to call my parents.
Senator: Your parents? Why?
Senator’s chief of staff: They don’t know I’m gay. Or pregnant.
Without spoiling the final episode of Alpha House’s new season, we can tell you that both brides do show up for that GOP gay wedding. But the real cliffhanger is whether Robert Bettancourt, the African-American Republican senator from Pennsylvania played by Clark Johnson, gets re-elected.
"I think there are a lot of TV shows that have heart, where you love the characters. And then there are other TV shows, comedies, that have a lot of bite and edge to them," said Jonathan Alter, a veteran journalist and author of best-selling political histories. He serves as one of the sitcom’s executive producers.
"Not many TV shows have both heart and bite, and I think that’s true of both 'Doonesbury' and 'Alpha House.' On the show we take some shots at these Republican senators but you also find yourself rooting for them," Alter said.
Garry Trudeau says that a few weeks after season two starts streaming, he’ll know if "Alpha House" gets a go-ahead for a third season. If that happens, he’ll continue to put his daily comic strip "Doonesbury" on hold, except for Sundays.
- Jon Kalish, radio reporter based in New York City.
This segment aired on October 24, 2014.