[dropcap]E[/dropcap]pisode three begins with Laffer, Biggs and Bettencrourt preparing for their ‘congressional delegation’ to Afghanistan; which in reality is little more than a photo op for Laffer and Biggs ahead of their upcoming primaries, and a chance for Bettencourt to touch base with Carthage Systems, the private security contractor with whom he has a cozy relationship. Adrina insists that Guzman should join his housemates on the trip, even though he isn’t running in a primary, as it will make him seem tough. On arriving at the base, the delegation finds itself in the middle of a major incident which thrusts them into the national spotlight.
The highlight of this episode is watching Laffer try to keep a lid on his anxiety as the Afghanistan trip looms; Matt Malloy brilliantly articulates Laffer’s clammy apprehension with some deft physical comedy. The dynamic between the main characters is slowly beginning to gel as the actors settle into their roles: John Goodman brings his usual assurance to the gruff but henpecked Biggs, Mark Consuelos oozes sleaze as Guzman, and Clark Johnson’s portrayal of Bettencourt is the most nuanced of the group. Introduced in this episode are Wanda Sykes as Rosalyn, a sassy Democratic senator who lives next door, and Haley Joel Osment as Shelby, a guileless journalist from Laffer’s home state.
But the whole thing is still hamstrung by the thirty-minute format imposed on it. Alpha House has a lamentably conventional feel, eschewing the daring Netflix/HBO model in favour of a more traditional approach. These are not standalone episodes – episode three sets in motion a story arc that looks set to run through the whole series – and Amazon is clearly looking beyond the on-demand market. Alpha House is designed to appeal to a casual network audience, sticking with the rigid old structure, relying on enduring clichés and veering away from a deeper exploration of its subject matter. Which is a shame, because there’s plenty here that could have been explored in greater detail, but the format precludes it.
The elephant in the room – no pun intended – is Netflix’s House of Cards, whose cinematic production values and dense scripts re-defined audience expectations of what an online series could and should be. Alpha House feels staid and superficial in comparison, adhering to a tired and confining sitcom structure. It lacks the scabrous wit and freewheeling energy of Armando Iannucci’s political comedies, which have become the benchmark for the genre.
The civil war going on in the GOP has tremendous comic possibilities, but thus far Alpha House has failed to make the most of what is an intrinsically good idea. Netflix has set the standard and thrown down the gauntlet to its competitors; and Alpha House feels frothy and contrived when placed next to House of Cards. Though this episode is an improvement on the last, the deficiencies in its overall presentation could not be overcome by the abundance of talent in front of the camera. We can only hope that as the series progresses, the characters solidify and the comic quotient increases.
Best Scene: Laffer and Bettencourt trying to pray together as Guzman and Adriana have sex in the next room
Best Political Reference: “Rand Paul wouldn’t, and you can use the contrast.” – Adriana to Guzman on the political benefit of going to Afghanistan