Politico reported yesterday that Alpha House, the Garry Trudeau-created pilot about a group of Congressmen living together in a townhouse in Washington, DC that’s based on a 2007 New York Times story about real-life legislators who are roommates when they’re in the District of Columbia, has become one of the first shows to be picked up by Amazon as part of its attempts to expand into original content development. It doesn’t shock me that Amazon pulled the trigger on Alpha House, which, if nothing else, let the company lock down John Goodman for a show, a move that follows the playbook laid out by Netflix in its splashy signing of Kevin Spacey to star in its remake of the British series House of Cards. But Alpha House was far from the strongest of Amazon’s adult-oriented pilots (it’s also testing shows aimed at children). And even if Amazon isn’t doing a traditional development process like its competitors in broadcast television, it would be wise for the service to consider taking a page from the networks’ playbooks and consider revamping the show a little bit before its full launch. Here are five suggestions for how to make Alpha House shine.
1. Make The House Bipartisan: One of the dullest decisions in the original pilot of Alpha House was to make all members of the house Republicans, and to make them all risible. Goodman’s Gil Joh Biggs, a do-nothing incumbent from a rural district who teaches Louis Laffer (Matt Malloy), an obviously closeted social conservative, to shoot in the basement, and signs them both up for a trip to Afghanistan when they attract Tea Party challengers and need to look tough. Clark Johnson plays Robert Bettencourt, an African-American Congressman who’s mostly in in for the donations from defense contractors—in one scene, he gives Gil John his notes from a filibuster speech so they can both go on the record saying nice things about the same giant corporations. And Mark Consuelos plays andy Guzman, a recently-divorced freshman who’s schtupping the founder of a Super PAC. All in all, it’s nothing we’ve seen before. But if Alpha House can sharpen the characterizations and give us a fresh take on what bipartisanship actually looks like, it could be refreshing and funny.
2. Lose The Lazy Do-Nothing Politicians Cliches: Alpha House‘s pilot makes a mistake common to many Washington shows: assuming none of its characters have actual passions or interests in policy, and that they’re good at manipulating the system, but not at doing anything of substance. But the show should take a lesson from Parks and Recreation, which has only gotten better as its main character Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) has become more competent, and as her success has posed an increasing challenge to the worldview of her libertarian supervisor Ron Swanson. Apathy doesn’t go anywhere. But genuine interest and accomplishments that threaten the priorities of other members of the house would be constant plot fodder.
3. Beef Up The Staff And Spouses: Right now, Alpha Dogs staffers and spouses fall into two categories: the beleaguered chief of staff and wife who try to get Gil John to do anything to stay in office, or enablers, like Bettencourt’s chief of staff or Guzman’s sexy bundler. Giving these characters more personality shading would make it clearer why the main cast loves the house as much as they do, and would create tensions within it. I already can’t wait to see what the preparations look like when Gil John’s wife shows up for visits.
4. Give The House Neighbors: The only story than the original Times reporting on the Congressional frathouse was the news, broken several years later, that Rahm Emanuel, while he was serving as President Obama’s chief of staff, lived in an illegal rental unit in Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro and her husband, political strategist Stan Greenberg’s basement. Stories about families of whatever variety are always better when you’ve got great neighbors, whether its the Flanders on The Simpsons, or sad FBI agent Stan Beeman’s total unawareness that his raquetball-and-motel-drinking buddy Phil Jennings is a Soviet spy on The Americans. This could also be a way for the show to get some ideological balance if Amazon plans to air the original pilot as is.
5. Explain Why The Characters Love Not Just The House, But Washington: Pop culture loves to bash Washington, DC as a third-rate swamp of corruption. But there’s a lot to love about the nation’s capital, and it would be nice to see Alpha House play on the tension for men who not only have left their families behind to pursue politics, but in some cases, are leaving rural districts behind for a more cosmopolitan area with a lot of amenities. This could also be a nice way to flesh out the members’ personalities beyond their stereotyped beginnings. Maybe have Gil John, in addition to shooting mattresses in the basement, be super-into his local Fresh Farm market, or have Bettencourt be irritated that since the beginning of the Obama administration, he can no longer sneak off to Ben’s Chili Bowl.