Apparently, viewers are fans of middle-aged men living like frat brothers and running the country in their spare time. “Alpha House,” created and written by “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau, was one of just two comedy pilots picked up for a full season.
But does the popularity of Netflix’s “House of Cards” — which attempted to defy TV conventions in releasing all its episodes to its streaming site on the same day — hurt another Washington series on the Internet? Not at all, says executive producer Jonathan Alter. In fact, the Kevin Spacey drama was a huge benefit to the fledgling “Alpha House.”
“It helped introduce people to the idea of watching online television, and especially online television about politics,” said Alter, a Washington-based writer for Bloomberg News who spent nearly three decades at Newsweek.
The show, based on a real property in the District that has housed a rotation of various Democratic senators for years, has been the brainchild of Trudeau since about 2008. Inspired by a New York Times story about the house, Trudeau originally wrote the pilot for network television, but things didn’t pan out.
Last January, Alter, a close friend of Trudeau’s, brought up the idea of resurrecting the abandoned pilot. Trudeau’s response, Alter said, was something along the lines of, “Well, be my guest.” Although Trudeau was unsure about pitching the script to Amazon Studios, Alter said, Alter convinced him that an online series was the way to go.
Having Trudeau’s name attached to the project certainly helped it stand out, Alter said, especially above the thousands of scripts Amazon received when it announced an open call for ideas. But Roy Price, Amazon Studios director, insists that “once you’re on the development slate, it’s all about the material.” Even though certain projects come into the studio in different ways, he said, “I think we apply the same criteria to all the ideas that we look at.”
Either way, Price added, studio execs were thrilled when they heard Trudeau, a known political satirist, wanted to do a show about the District. “When it comes to Washington and its foibles and what makes it unique, few people have been more insightful and more knowledgeable than Garry Trudeau,” Price said.
Alter agrees that Trudeau’s voice was key to the show’s success, along with connections that helped land Bill Murray and Stephen Colbert in small roles in the pilot.
“I do think it helped we got those cameos,” Alter said, then paused. “And then it really helped when we got John Goodman.”
Goodman plays Gil John Biggs, a brash, unfiltered senator from North Carolina who seems to be the leader of the alpha house. When he’s not making fun of his roommate-colleagues, he’s on the phone with his wife, back in his home district, who’s telling him to step up his game, because the beloved Duke basketball coach is planning to run against him in the next election. Goodman is joined by Clark Johnson, Matt Malloy and Mark Consuelos, who also play Republican senators.
(Trudeau went against the political affiliations of the actual house because, he said in a Washington Post interview, Democrats are currently pretty boring, while Republicans “are tearing themselves apart and will be for the foreseeable future.”)
The pilot skewers various aspects of Washington, cracking jokes at the expense of both conservatives and liberals. In one exciting coincidence, Trudeau penned a scene about an epic filibuster years before the 13-hour speech in March by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). At first, the writers of the show were worried that an all-night filibuster might seem unrealistic; after Paul’s performance, truth proved stranger than fiction, and the scene stayed.
Once the crew learned that filming on the Capitol grounds would be next to impossible, they wound up shooting most of the pilot in New York, with exterior shots of the District, including a rowhouse on Maryland Avenue that will stand in for the alpha house. While taking creative license for the comedy, Alter said, they try to keep everything as realistic as possible for eagle-eyed viewers. This means the little details: the bowl of tiny American flag pins the senators keep on hand, low-level staff members sitting against the walls — instead of at the table — in meetings. (It doesn’t stop there: Alter said they’ll be making adjustments in the future on set after he noticed on C-SPAN that the real Senate floor chairs differed slightly from theirs.)
In the original article that inspired “Alpha House,” housemate Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) was quoted, saying that, in theory, everyone wanted to do a TV show about the unusual living situation, but “then they realize that the story of four middle-aged men, with no sex and violence, is not going to last two weeks.”
Hearing that quote, Alter laughed. “We’ve addressed the question of sex,” he said, referring to a scene in the pilot in which the newest senator, played by Consuelos, is shown enthusiastically keeping busy during the all-night filibuster at the Capitol.
“And,” Alter added, in case any viewers need more enticement about another political show, “there may actually be some violence that’s coming, too.”