Amazon Studios tonight introduced its first two original series, comedies Alpha House and Betas, during a TV Academy event at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre. And the recurring theme was creating quality TV.
Alpha House, about four Republican U.S. senators who share a residence in D.C., is created, written and exec produced by Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury and Tanner ’88 fame. (Cast member Clark Johnson called him “the Aaron Sorkin of the Internet,” adding, “I don’t change a comma.”) Trudeau began by saying he had “several reservations initially” about working with Amazon because “I had not seen great television produced on the web, and I did not see how they were going to be able to kick it up to another level with the kind of resources that had been provided to creators on YouTube and other venues. But as it turned out, that wasn’t the plan — the plan was to provide the kind of support you need to make high-end television. … (The) goal, I believe, was to create HBO-quality television right out of the gate.”
He said he’d read a story about four real congressmen who live together and one said a lot of people mentioned that it would make a great TV series but the problem was “who’s gonna watch a show about four middle-age guys with no sex and violence? So the way we got around that is we added sex and violence.”
The show stars John Goodman (who wasn’t there Thursday) along with Johnson, Matt Molloy, and Mark Consuelos (who were). Goodman plays a blustery North Carolina long-timer who’s suddenly facing a challenge for his seat. Molloy described his Louis Laffer as a “charisma-challenged, semi-devout Mormon” from Nevada who wants to fit in with the guys “who grew up in locker rooms.” Consuelos, who’s younger than his co-stars, is a newly divorced and on-the-prowl Cuban American from Florida. He was asked how much his character is influenced by Marco Rubio. “I hope he’s having as much fun as my character,” he responded. “I don’t think any man in Washington who keeps his job is having that much fun.”
The focus then shifted to Betas, a much younger-skewing single-camera about four nerdy ”wantrapreneurs” in the Silicon Valley who try to launch an Internet company. The writers and producers stressed the show’s focus on the characters rather than poking easy fun at them. “The way to make this show work,” producer Michael Lehmann said, “was to ground it and to not do nerd humor or trot out all the cliches but to actually get inside the heads of people who work in that industry.” Said writer and co-creator Josh Stoddard, “We all really wanted to tell this story but really approach it from a character rather than joke point of view.”
Producer Alan Freedland talked about how he fell for the script by Stoddard and Evan Endicott. “It was blending comedy and drama — it wasn’t just out-and-out comedy,” he said. “And I think that’s how a lot of people hook into the characters. And then the great ensemble cast that we have – that’s what people want in good quality television. And it’s those emotional moments that bring people back week after week so they can grow with the characters and experience what they’re experiencing.” Added Lehmann, “The heart and soul of the show is the cast.”
But the cast members on the panel — including Joe Dinicol, Charlie Saxton, Jon Daly, Karan Soni, Maya Erskine and Ed Begley Jr. — spent much of their time answering questions submitted online rather than expanding on their characters. But the behind-the-scenes guys filled in some of the blanks. Endicott said the show’s title was “partly a riff on Silicon Valley and the idea that you have beta versions of programs, but it was mostly about these people being in beta. And if you become connected to them, you want them to become the better version of themselves. They all have something they need to deal with and get over. And I think as the show goes on, we really just explore that.”
Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios, began the evening with a Q&A moderated by TV Academy’s Seth Shapiro then sat in on both panels. He got off a pretty good line about Betas, saying, “We have a strict creative rule at Amazon that every year we’re gonna greenlight a show featuring software engineers.”
Both Alpha House and Betas are premiering this month with three free episodes available at launch and the others rolling out weekly for Amazon Prime subscribers.