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.
DW: I ask in part because they're more racially diverse than the GOP conference is right now. I did wonder how an African-American Republican could become a senior senator and not quickly be put on a national ticket.
GT: Ha! Jon Alter, my co-executive producer, made the same point about Robert. The problem, of course, is that he's the target of both a federal probe and a Senate ethics investigation, not exactly resume-builders.
DW: How much have you fleshed out the backgrounds/bios of these characters? How much are you leaving that up to the rest of the team and the actors?
GT: With both the strip and the show, I generally fill in the backgrounds of characters on an as-need basis. I've always been reluctant to get locked into anything that might limit where I take a character in the future. The simplest backstory decision can have a profound impact down the road. For instance, I made Louis a Mormon, which has all sorts of implications for how I write him. His strong identification with his faith group informs much of his behavior. Alpha House has no show bible, no inventory of established story and character points, but it probably should. Doonesbury is notorious among close readers for its inconsistencies.
DW: I'm a huge fan of Tanner '88, which had so much fun with the pretensions of post-Reagan liberalism. (I’m thinking of the episode in which Tanner announces his Cabinet, including EPA Director Gloria Steinem and Attorney General Ralph Nader.) Alpha House is about a pack of Republicans. Are Republicans now funnier, richer satire targets, than Democrats, after 25 years of them moving right and Democrats moving left?
GT: In 1988, after two stinging presidential defeats and on the verge of a third, it was the Democrats who were in disarray. Tanner, an old-school liberal, was struggling to make sense of the changes around him. He really believed it was all about trying harder, that if he were a bolder version of himself, people might come to their senses. Until Clinton led the party back to the center, this is how liberals thought, and it was their downfall. It's always more interesting to write about people in crisis than those in ascendancy, so that was the story Altman and I focused on. The show began as a portrait of a "good" candidate; it ended as a study of a doomed one.
This time around, it is mainstream conservatives who are caught in the riptide. They're being sucked out of their political comfort zone, and they have no idea what to do about it. They're being attacked by ideologues and amateurs, and there's nothing in the traditional Republican model that prepared them for that. It's an existential crisis, and it's pulled them so far away from their core values, they no longer recognize themselves. What does Boehner see in the mirror now? He sacrificed the common good to hold on to power. This is what the show's about—a crisis of political identity. It's the bookend to Tanner.
DW: Tanner was generally true to himself, though. He broke out of the pack when an aide filmed him ranting about the promise of America and the left, and turned it into a TV ad. But these senators are all quite cynical about the politics they're supposed to embrace, from "fighting sodomy" to filibustering climate change science. In your experience, is this more common among Republicans than true-believerism? Do you think the party's held hostage, or that it's actually that far right?
GT: The former, and a significant number of Republicans are beginning to fear the implications. As the GOP peels away from even its own long-standing positions—on mandates, climate change, cap and trade, background checks, infrastructure, issue after issue. As it becomes ever more pure, but ever less representative, it's setting the conditions for its own demise. It's headed for a Goldwater-style crackup, which is what it will take to finally nudge them back towards the sensible center.
DW: You told another interviewer you were encouraged by the response to House of Cards, and you enjoyed the show generally. What did you make of that show as satire? What did it puncture particularly well about D.C./politics?
GT: Was it satire? It didn't seem to me the creators were looking for laughs. I just thought it was good drama—wonderful acting and first-rate writing (at least until the end, when a certain shark got jumped).
DW: Do you see any way out of the downward shame spiral that politicians seem stuck in, vis-à-vis the way the public sees them? Is the current turmoil around Obamacare—hey, these guys can't even run a website?—going to worsen that?
GT: There's some hope to be found in local politics. While some states are sliding backwards—the unraveling in North Carolina is breathtaking—some are headed into the future. California, in particular, seems to have righted itself and is once again showing us the way. Brown, of whom I was once a noisy critic, has been incontestably effective. To remake our politics, we need to pay attention to the R&D being done on the state level.