Alpha House creator Garry Trudeau, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist behind the famous Doonesbury comic strip, took the stage at the New York City premiere of his new Amazon original comedy Monday night and reminisced about a time just a few years ago when he would’ve declined an invitation to a night of Internet content.
“And I would’ve wondered what happened to John Goodman’s career,” Trudeau said.
It’s a whole new world. Amazon is no longer just an online bookseller—the company is a media juggernaut with a line of tablets designed to help you consume content. Now, some of that content is made by Amazon.
Trudeau’s comedy Alpha House, which makes its first three episodes available for free on Friday, was one of five shows Amazon chose to develop after letting viewers pick their favorites from a sampling of 14 pilot episodes. Another comedy, Betas , premieres Nov. 22. Three children’s shows are in the pipeline, as are dramas from The X-Files creator Chris Carter and The Wire writer Eric Overmyer.
Amazon’s crowdsourced approach to TV development could persuade those original viewers to sign up for Prime memberships, which you need to buy in order to unlock the rest of each show’s season. Conceivably if you cared enough to vote for a show, you’re emotionally invested enough to cough up the cash to watch how the season plays out.
But if you didn’t vote for Alpha House—or vote at all—the first three episodes available for free on Friday won’t convince you to sign up for a $79 Prime membership.
Alpha is good, but not great
Forget the House of Cards comparisons. David Fincher didn’t invent a new genre of television with the show—although it’s one of the best dramas around—and Amazon isn’t aiming to take down Netflix with a similar, politically minded show.
Alpha House is the true story of four senators picked to live in a house and have their lives taped…wait, no. The show is a fictional comedy about four Republican senators who share a house in Washington D.C. (which calls to mind the infamous real-life C Street house).
Trudeau has a promising setup, but some of the jokes in Alpha House’s early episodes fall flat—like when Nevada Sen. Louis Laffer Jr. (Matt Malloy) accepts the Say No to Sodomy Award from the Council for Normal Marriage. Laffer’s ambiguous sexuality is an easy ploy—oh, heavens, a closeted Republican!—but it does contribute to a hilarious scene with guest star Stephen Colbert. Also keep an eye out for an amazing Bill Murray cameo.
John Goodman is a standout—as usual—as tired North Carolina Sen. Gil John Biggs, who faces a new political challenger. Mark Consuelos is Florida Sen. Andy Guzman, a clear Marco Rubio substitute (though Ted Cruz would have provided more character fodder), and Clark Johnson rounds out the quartet as Sen. Robert Betancourt, who is being investigated by the Ethics Committee and has a strange subplot as the Senate matchmaker.
The show has potential, especially in the moments where it skewers the hostile political climate in Washington—in one hilarious scene, Goodman’s character pretends to wag his finger while talking to a friendly Democratic colleague to avoid suspicion that the two are friends. It’s comedy gold.
Amazon vs. Netflix
Amazon’s attempt at original content creation has placed the company squarely in Netflix territory. But pitting Amazon against Netflix isn’t exactly fair. Until recently, the two companies existed in parallel but related industries—retail and entertainment—and Amazon is only now really trying to catch up to the streaming media giant.
It’s also worth noting that people aren’t averse to subscribing to multiple services. Amazon just has to make the case that a Prime membership is just as compelling as a Netflix subscription, if not more so. Prime’s selling point is still its free shipping, but if Amazon continues to load membership with extras like new TV shows and deals on ebooks, the company will likely win over potential subscribers.
When it comes to content, Netflix is still king. But Alpha House is early proof that Amazon means business.