Six years ago, Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau opened the New York Times and learned that four Democratic members of Congress shared a crash pad. “[T]he abode is hardly fit for entertaining, or even for a health inspector,” reported Mark Leibovich. This vision of powerful legislators reheating Chinese food and slaughtering rats appealed to Trudeau, who quickly developed a pitch for a TV show.
Six years later, he’s got one. Ads for Alpha House have sprung up all over Washington this month, asking a city that’s happily self-obsessed by House of Cards, Scandal, and Veep to meet one more cast of fictional politicians. Most of the show’s buzz has focused on its unexpected distribution—it’s the first Amazon Prime series, following the lead of Netflix’s buzzy, Emmy-winning streaming shows. Trudeau was as surprised as anyone that you could make quality television for the Internet. “I’d love to say I saw the possibilities right away,” he told the Washington Post, “but I didn’t.”
Alpha House delivers cringe comedy in the Veep mold, revolving around the scabrous and idiotic personalities of Congress. In the first scene of the pilot, one of the four roommates oversleeps for an arraignment. “That’s just piss-poor staff work,” mutters Sen. Gil John Biggs (John Goodman), as his colleague gargles mouthwash and builds complex sentences out of the F-word. Goodman plays to type, all slouches and insults and temper tantrums. Matt Malloy plays an endangered Nevada senator as a man drained of all testosterone, quaking in fear of a Tea Party challenger. Clark Johnson, whom Wire fans will recognize as the noble Baltimore Sun editor from that series’ final season, plays a version of that same archetype, though here he’s an idealist who’s just sort of given up. The arraigned roommate is replaced by Mark Consuelos, a Spanish actor who hasn’t broken out of a role before now, but does wonders as a rising star who oozes sleaze. Leibovich’s posse of Democrats has been turned into a gang of Republicans.
("I haven't seen it," says Leibovich of the series. "But it did inspire my own idea: a series about a group-house of hack reporters who sit around all day wondering why they're not more enterprising." Leibovich gets no royalty check from Amazon, but Goodman did read the author’s D.C. tell-all to prepare for Alpha House.)
The early episodes—they will be doled out weekly—don’t make much of the “roommates” gimmick. Trudeau and executive producer Jonathan Alter are more interested in political satire, which is occasionally a bit too on the nose. (The “traditional values” group led by a guy who reads as a flaming gay dude has been a joke on Parks and Recreation for a while, but here’s another one, minting an “anti-sodomy” trophy.) The funnier stuff is subtler and closer to the ground. Trudeau and Alter have a sharp, realistic view of intra-Republican politics, and the cynics who find themselves trapped by the Tea Party.
This week I talked to Trudeau about the inspirations for the show, the rights and wrongs of other political satire, and why today’s Republicans are as comedy-rich as the Dukakis-era Democrats.
David Weigel: Are your four lead senators based on anyone in particular?
Garry Trudeau: Not directly, although there are some obvious similarities between Andy, our aspirational Latino senator from Florida, and Marco Rubio. The most direct connection might be between Gil John Biggs, our ex-basketball coach, and Fred Thompson. Both were political amateurs who coasted into office on their celebrity—and both lacked the necessary gravitas and fire to sustain their careers.