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A Chat with Jonathan Alter, Executive Producer of “Alpha House”

November 14th, 2013 | Posted by Melanie McFarland in Alpha House | Amazon Studios

 

If politics is theater, then it may be best characterized as a never-ending comedy, with Washington D.C. providing the world’s largest stage.

Few people know that better than Jonathan Alter who, along with Elliot Webb and Pulitzer Prize-winner Garry Trudeau, serve as the executive producers of Amazon Studios’ first original series “Alpha House,” making its debut on Amazon Instant Video on Friday, November 15.

Surely the conceit of “Alpha House,” which follows the lives of four Republican senators living under one roof in the nation’s capital, may seem a strange to the average person who might not know that sharing housing is actually a common practice among national lawmakers. Inspired by the actual living situation of Senators Chuck Schumer and Richard J. Durbin, who share a house with Representatives Bill Delahunt and George Miller, the central quartet displays a sense of brotherhood born less out of party allegiance than from the sheer empathy of being stuck together in a strange world where nothing they do or say goes unnoticed.

Thanks to nuanced portrayals by its four leads — anchored by rock-solid performances by John Goodman and “The Wire‘s” Clark Johnson, with Mark Consuelos and Matt Malloy adding delightful levity to the mix — the housing situation takes a backseat to the poignant characters and their various personal and political challenges.

We should say, three of them are facing struggles. Goodman’s Gil John Biggs has glided through his political career virtually unchallenged, thanks to his status as a legendary basketball coach. But in an upcoming election, he must contend with a bonafide challenge in the form of another coach — this one gilded with a recent string of victories and backing from the far right. Robert Bettencourt, Johnson’s character, has an ethics-related scandal to contend with thanks to his overt coziness with lobbyists.

Nevada Senator Louis Laffer, Jr., played by Malloy, has a challenger who questions his “manliness”, a situation that isn’t helped by frequent, public missteps that reveal an air of ambiguity surrounding his sexual orientation and his demonstrated expertise in evaluating women’s fashion. The only Teflon character in the house, for the moment, is Consuelos’s young and freshly divorced Senator Andy Guzman, whose overwhelming confidence and hunger to become president could one day be his undoing…but, for the moment, have carried him through to the peak of political stardom.

Having spent nearly three decades analyzing the media and national politics for Newsweek and other outlets, in addition to authoring three bestselling books about U.S. presidents, Alter is more than familiar with the Washington political scene’s oddities.

For example, in referring to a plot point in a future episode, “when we say that there’s a mohair subsidy, you know, for mohair production – it’s real! We’re not making that up,” Alter says. “We make up a lot of what happens after that, but…”

“Alpha House” is the latest politically-themed series to enter a field already occupied by Netflix’s “House of Cards” and HBO’s “Veep,” both Emmy award-winners with star-studded casts. At the same time, it manages to stake out its own space within this realm thanks to Trudeau’s singular approach to the subject and to comedy. Though Alter contributed a number of suggestions to propel the plot, “this one was very much (Trudeau’s) vision and his voice,” he says.

“The thing for people to understand when they watch ‘Alpha House’ is that it’s different than the sort of standard network comedy,” Alter continues. “If they’re kind of looking for a standard network comedy that happens to be on Amazon,  they’re going to be surprised. Because it is not setup-joke, setup-joke, setup-joke. In fact, Garry says, ‘I don’t write jokes.’ It’s humorous and highly entertaining situations that grow out of the characters and it works on a few different levels at once.”

Alter also points out another key difference between his project and the alternate universes occupied by Congressman Francis Underwood and Vice President Selina Meyer: “We’re the only political comedy where Obama is president and Mitch McConnell is the Senate minority party leader. The rest of the comedies and most of the dramas are all made up. So strangely enough, even though we’re a comedy, we’re realistic.”

As such, not only are there passing references to the immigration debate, the war in Afghanistan and the government shutdown (which occurred while season one was still in production), there are also prominent personalities in the political landscape passing through the first season. In addition to cameos by Chuck Schumer, Alter says viewers will also see guest appearances from TV journalists such as Mika BrzezinskiJoe Scarborough, and Chris Matthews, in addition to a very funny scene in the second episode with Stephen Colbert. And as previously reported in the New York Times, Consuelos’s wife Kelly Ripa also will pay a visit, as does Jane Pauley, who has a scene with Bill Murray in the season finale.

It should also be mentioned that taken at face value, “Alpha House” is likely to take a few knocks for being unfairly skewed toward a liberal viewpoint. The four main characters are Republicans, and though the second and third episodes introduce Wanda Sykes and Cynthia Nixon as liberal lawmakers — with Nixon, in particular, seeming at first blush to be the somewhat joyless voice of reason — the action is heavily weighted to skewered the main character’s foibles. No surprise there; Trudeau’s liberal viewpoint has been on parade for years in his cartoon strip Doonesbury, and played heavily in his script for HBO’s miniseries “Tanner ’88,” which was directed by Robert Altman.

Alter acknowledges that, while also defending the producers’ desire to avoid pursuing a phony sense of balance for its own sake. “Everybody gets satirized, but everybody also gets humanized,” he explains. “I think …the viewers, including very liberal viewers, will find themselves rooting for these conservative Republicans.”

“Do you have to be reasonably intelligent to enjoy ‘Alpha House’? I’d say yes,” he adds. “But there are millions and millions of intelligent people out there.”

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