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Amazon's new TV pilots: 'Alpha House'

Actor John Goodman attends

Actor John Goodman attends "The Big Lebowski" Blu-ray release at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan. (Aug. 16, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

Amazon launched itself into history this week with the premiere of a batch of pilots -- like John Goodman's "Alpha House" -- that'll take it into direct competition with major cable networks and major broadcast ones, too. This week in this space, I'll take a look at some of the big  ones (and yes, there are quite a few -- 14, to be exact, via Amazon Studios, the website's new TV division) beginning with perhaps the most ambitious one, "Alpha House."

But about these "pilots:" This is a uniquely only-on-the-web kind of experiment, in which viewers, or Amazon customers, will determine which ones ultimately go to series. (Doubtful they all will.) Viewing is free now, but one can expect that pay-for-play is just around the corner, unless advertising becomes part of the Amazon calculus, too.

All this for now is in a bit of a gray area, but what is crystal clear is this: Amazon is suddenly the newest player in a field about to become chock full of new content -- and as you are doubtless aware, Netflix launched another series, "Hemlock Grove" last week, while Hulu will start streaming the reborn "One Life to Live" and "All My Children" starting next Monday.

To "Alpha House!"

What it's about: Created by Garry Trudeau, this is a cutting satire of a small group of senators who are bunking together in the same house in Washington. They are Gil John Biggs (John Goodman), Andy Guzman (Mark Consuelos), Robert Bettencourt (Clark Johnson) and Louis Laffer (Matt Malloy). In the pilot, one of the senators Vernon Smits (Bill Murray) is awoken by Gil who reminds him that he was supposed to turn himself into the DOJ on this particular day. Vern is not happy .?.?. Two story lines in the pilot: They have to replace Vern, and suave raffish Andy comes into their sights; and Louis is up for re-election, being painted in his home state -- I forget which one, but out west -- as a wimpy liberal by the tea party candidate. Gil takes it upon himself to "man up" Louis.

My say: Of all the pilots, this is the one -- I believe -- that has given pretty much the rest of the TV serious indigestion. Really: Who has pockets deep enough to get Bill Murray to actually appear in a TV pilot, or even John Goodman for that matter? (Doubtful you'll be seeing much of Bill going forward, by the way; as clever as his open is, it all feels like a favor or a debt-now-paid.) And yes, Garry Trudeau has done TV but the efforts were not entirely memorable or long lasting. Take that back -- his Michael Murphy-starring mockumentary series, "Tanner '88," about a guy running for prez,  did get a good reaction, if memory serves, when it aired on HBO many years ago, but the TV series spinoff ("Tanner on Tanner") landed quietly in Nowheresville.

Adam Bernstein by the way directed this pilot, and Bernstein is esteemed -- one of the biggest comedy directors in television. He's a superstar in this business, and getting him to helm the pilot simply means that this show will get off on the right foot -- and it does. "Alpha House" is profane, bitter, hard-edge, and often funny. The opening Murray bit is flawless, while Goodman is Goodman throughout -- exactly how you'd want him to be. Two nice surprises here -- Matt Malloy, a TV journeyman who has possibly appeared in every TV show ever made beginning with -- guess! -- "Tanner '88; and Consuelos, who -- darn it -- is a good actor, even if he is best known as Kelly Ripa's house husband. Can Trudeau turn out a weekly series about the despicable behavior of people behaving despicably in Washington? I see no reason why not -- he has plenty of material after all.

Bottom line: Raw, funny open.

Grade: B+

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