“Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau may have been ahead of the curve when he signed up to produce a television show for Amazon’s streaming service. But the series he created, “Alpha House,” which returned for its second season Friday, is hardly Trudeau’s first foray into political drama.
The comedy about four Republican senators who share a Capitol Hill townhouse continues in the tradition of Lacey Davenport, the “Doonesbury” Republican congresswoman from San Francisco, presidential aspirant Jack Tanner and the fictional MC Rap Master Ronnie, who took the Reagan message to minority voters in 1984. All of Trudeau’s politicians have something in common: they are trying to work out their political identities at a moment when their parties are facing realignment.
“The things that I’m interested in have changed dramatically,” Trudeau explained when he and I sat down to discuss “Alpha House” this summer. “I couldn’t have done ‘Tanner ’88’ (his mockumentary about a Democratic presidential hopeful) with Republicans in the late 1980s in a way that I could have figured out that would have been interesting. And conversely, I couldn’t have done ‘Alpha House’ with Democrats. In what sort of bind are they that is dramatically interesting other than the fact that they can’t get anything done? They just come home and be frustrated.”
Trudeau is drawn to moments when political identities reach crisis points, and “Alpha House” is shot through with these fault lines. The first season featured the ramping up of primary season, galvanizing a group of men who were used to not having to work for their seats. As Trudeau puts it, “with these tea party challenges, man, it’s fun to watch!”
The characters have more existential dilemmas to go with the logistics of their reelection campaigns.
Louis Laffer Jr. (Matt Malloy) is plagued by gay rumors and tries to butch up his image on an overseas trip, even though he would rather be home in Washington making sure the townhouse, which he owns, is run smoothly. Gil John Biggs (John Goodman) is a hero because of his record as a college basketball coach but finds himself growing away from his constituents. Robert Bettencourt (Clark Johnson) is a black Republican from Pennsylvania whose defense of his party, particularly on access to the vote, is becoming less viable.
And then there is Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos), the newest occupant of the house, and a brash freshman senator who does not bother to be coy about his presidential ambitions.
Andy is an irritant as a housemate, claiming a bigger room than his junior status should allow him and moving in his girlfriend, Miami mogul Adriana de Portago (Yara Martinez, channeling Lucille Ball), without asking permission. He is a political and generational challenge to his colleagues as well, a man who skirts the line on campaign finance laws and ethics, as well as in his personal style.
“There are a generation of young firebrands who say: ‘Oh, yeah, it’s OK to throw bombs. Why wouldn’t it be OK to throw bombs? That seems perfectly normal to me,’ ” Trudeau says. “And they’ve grown up with the degraded culture of online conversation, and they’re comfortable with it. I think it’s fun having Andy in the house for that reason. He can’t quite understand why they’re having so many problems. You just adjust! You just pivot!”
These inflection points create opportunities for Trudeau and “Alpha House” to reach some surprising conclusions.
It is fairly common, for example, to lament the way lawmakers grow away from their constituents. But in an episode last season, “Alpha House” suggested that going away from home had actually been a good thing for Gil John. When he went back to his hometown of Ruby Shoals, the barbershop denizens he remembered fondly turned out to be the kind of guys who say unpleasant things about race in front of Gil John’s body man, Hakeem (Bjorn Dupaty).
When Robert faces his first real challenger in some time in former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, making a cameo on the series, “he has to hustle,” Trudeau explains. “And he sees his team working the new voting laws in a way that is pretty horrifying to him. And he’s got to face the reality of what voter suppression has become. … He has to come to terms with that, his party is pushing that.”
And “Alpha House” also asks how much politicians can restrain themselves to fit into a public role that is profoundly unnatural.
The wall Louis has built between himself and anything remotely gay acquires some cracks when his beloved staffer Julie (Brooke Bloom) decides to stop hiding her long-term relationship with Andy’s chief of staff, Katherine (Natalie Gold). And Andy’s compulsive womanizing gets in the way of his engagement to Adriana. His profligacy is less an expression of a self-destructive impulse and more an expression of privilege. Andy has gotten away with everything, so why not an affair with his housekeeper?
“In a national election, they’re going to have the Goldwater moment again, and that’s the only thing that can right the ship, I think, is total disaster, if they lose 46 states,” he told me.