Amazon Studios’ first TV efforts try to be everything to everyone who upvoted them
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Amazon Studios’ first TV efforts try to be everything to everyone who upvoted them

It’s only fitting that one of Amazon’s first forays into television production is a sitcom about software developers. And that’s not just because of its e-commerce roots. With its Amazon Studios wing, the online retailer is attempting the very same feat as the protagonists of Betas: To bootstrap its way to success in a nascent field. If that sounds more like the aim of a tech company than the programming strategy of a television network, that was probably unavoidable. And, presumably, part of the point: In bringing Betas and its streaming companion, the political satire Alpha House, to series, Amazon applied Internet-age values to the creaky process of TV development. Pilot scripts were crowdsourced. Pickups were determined by viewer feedback. As in the competitive world of Betas, the success of these shows will ultimately be determined by user reviews and volume of clicks. It’s brave new territory for television comedy.

But as the most powerful man in the insular Betas universe tells its brash protagonists, “hype is cheap—delivering is what’s important.” At the end of a year when its main competitors, Netflix and Hulu, took significant chunks out of TV’s ivory towers, Betas and Alpha House come across as blunted attacks. Each has reasons to recommend it, but they also show signs of what happens when a show tries to be everything to everyone who upvoted it—an analogy more in line with Alpha House’s political movers-and-shakers. 

As indicated by their pilot episodes, Betas is the stronger show. But what follows that pilot marks a series that learned all the wrong lessons from Entourage: In its first three installments, there’s no obstacle Trey (Joe Dinicol) and his cohorts can’t breeze through with a smirk and a shrug. (And the show’s treatment of its female characters would give even Johnny Drama pause.) Trey’s entrepreneurial cockiness gives a lift to the show’s premiere, but by the time he and the team behind social-networking app BRB are spinning a spot of bad press into a torrent of good publicity, the show’s sense of consequence has already eroded. That’s a flaw it shares with the early goings of Alpha House, though the scandals and indictments that series’ senators roll through stand a greater chance of biting its characters in the ass at a later date.

But the way these characters keep barreling forward could just be a symptom of the format. Though Amazon is releasing new episodes on a weekly basis, Betas and Alpha House are built for a binge-watching age. There may be a lack of narrative tension pulling viewers into the next episode (beyond Betas’ version of “Vince is doing the movie,” “the venture capitalist is doing the app”), but these first TV efforts from Amazon Studios flow nicely together. Viewers checking in with Betas on a weekly basis might be puzzled by the fact that All-American Rejects frontman Tyson Ritter (playing a douchey brogrammer who turns out to be an okay dude, despite his ludicrously sculpted facial hair) keeps sticking around; he’s introduced as an incidental character in the pilot, and it’s only by watching the episodes back to back that his role begins to make some sense. Viewers watching on a weekly basis are likely to stay confused for a while.

The tradeoff there is solid sitcom storytelling. Though they’re inevitably overcome, the episodic roadblocks encountered by the guys of Betas at least distinguish one 25-minute chunk of the show from another. The first three Alpha Houses don’t fare as well, even as it’s evident that creator Garry Trudeau and team are thinking outside of the box and delivering a comedy that could only work on the web. Each of the show’s four fictional, senatorial roommates—played by Mark Consuelos, John Goodman, Clark Johnson, and Matt Malloy—has some sort of controversy swirling around him, controversies that gain new kinks in every episode and are contributing to a larger picture that’s yet unclear. But none of that is as compelling as what’s going on between the characters, relationship-based material that’s often shoved aside to, say, tease a warzone visit (which doesn’t generate any tension until the final frames of episode three). Trudeau’s been mixing the personal and the political for more than four decades in the panels of Doonesbury, but none of his living, breathing Alpha House politicians feel as alive as the former residents of Walden Commune.

And while it’s damning both shows with faint praise, they are recognizably professional products. The performances are strong—Goodman’s a sight for sore eyes on the small screen, and Jon Daly is hopefully playing the first in a long line of whacked-out supporting players on Betas—and the web budget never shows. But in revolutionizing the development process, Amazon Studios cut out the most important step in creating new comedies: Cultivating a voice. Betas’ aspirational spirit can be invigorating, but it’s yet to find a unique perspective on the setting that was the winningest part of its pilot. Alpha House hits a few notes of inspired satire—like the bowl of American flag lapel pins the senators keep on the kitchen counter—but Trudeau’s been more biting and much funnier elsewhere, past TV efforts like Tanner ’88 and the malaise-infected Doonesbury Special included. For the time being, Amazon Studios remains at the beta testing phase, boasting two original series that are no stronger argument for an Amazon Prime membership than the free shipping.

Betas
Created by: Evan Endicott and Josh Stoddard
Starring: Joe Dinicol, Karan Soni, Jon Daly, Charlie Saxton, and Maya Erskine
Format: Half-hour single-camera sitcom
Three episodes watched for review

Alpha House 
Created by: Garry Trudeau
Starring: John Goodman, Clark Johnson, Matt Malloy, Mark Consuelos, Yara Martinez
Format: Half-hour single-camera sitcom
Three episodes watched for review

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