The Weekend Playlist: Amazon's Alpha House, Almost Human
There's another serious new player in the ever-expanding universe of online original-content providers (see: Netflix and Hulu) - and happily, Amazon's entry into this suddenly cluttered marketplace is not just seriously funny, but it's as bracingly timely as the latest exasperating political headline.
Alpha House (three episodes bow Friday on amazon.com, with future episodes available to Amazon Prime subscribers) is satire at its most blistering and biting, delivered by a master of the trade: Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau, whose contempt for political cynicism, venality and hypocrisy doesn't keep the jaded protagonists of this bawdy, brazen comedy from being great company. The setting is a Washington, D.C., row house, home away from home for four Republican senators, led by the fearlessly outrageous John Goodman as a good-old-boy/former football star who's outraged to discover he won't be able to coast through his next election. (His new opponent: a legendary Duke coach. As someone observes: "You're like a retired god. He's active.")
His roomies include the wonderfully droll Clark Johnson (Homicide: Life on the Street) as a player under scrutiny by the Senate's ethics committee (of which Goodman's character thinks he may be the ranking member, if only he'd ever attend); the very amusing Matt Malloy as a Nevada pol with a troubling "wimp factor" that he attempts to remedy with a memorable appearance on The Colbert Report; and filling a vacancy (occasioned by a terrific star cameo in the opening reel), Mark Consuelos as a hunky horndog who's happy to be able to hook up somewhere other than the Senate's cloak room. A practice which causes Johnson's character to grumble: "Whatever happened to dignity and privacy? I miss old Washington when people ----ed in broom closets."
Trudeau knows this world of inane filibusters, self-righteous doublespeak and viral-media mockery all too well - "What's a meme?" wonders a senator who's become a laughing stock - and this savvy comedy nails the details (a bowl full of flag pins at the ready) down to the casting of the voices of the wives back home, including Julie White and Amy Sedaris, both of whom I hope we get to see further down the road.
Alpha House, whose sting goes beyond the brittle farce of HBO's Veep, bookends a week that began with Hulu's hilarious action comedy The Wrong Mans (which I'll write about Monday; I was away for its premiere), and who'd have thought that the fall's boldest and best new comedies would arrive this late in the season - and on not-quite-networks to boot.
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BAD ROBOT? Think again. J.J. Abrams' iconic production company (with Fringe veteran J.H. Wyman at the controls) may be responsible for Fox's promising new sci-fi/police procedural hybrid Almost Human, but not since Star Trek: The Next Generation's Data have I encountered a robot as endearing as Dorian (charismatic Michael Ealy), the empathetic android cop who provides the show's heart, soul and spine. (Human premieres Sunday at 8/7c to take advantage of a powerful football doubleheader lead-in before moving to its regular time period on Mondays, also at 8/7c).
The stunt scheduling makes sense. The action in this dystopian urban jungle of 2048 is solid enough to grab sports fans, while genre buffs are just as likely to be drawn in by the interpersonal dynamics between the genial Dorian - don't call him "synthetic" - and his McGruff human partner John Kennex (Karl Urban, Dr. McCoy in the current Star Trek movie franchise), who's newly back on the force after barely surviving an explosive ambush by the terrorist "Syndicate," a bombing that left him in a 17-month coma with an artificial leg and apparent PTSD tendencies. A snarky colleague sees this team as "two cops from the scrap heap," because Dorian him/itself was decommissioned (i.e., unplugged) four years earlier for going overboard on the emotional matrix. His model was replaced by a droning platoon of humorless cyborgs that favors rationality over compassion. "Sometimes new technology isn't better," Dorian muses, stating the show's apparent theme. Because for all of the show's high-octane action trappings, the human connection between these buddy cops is what ultimately will make Almost Human compute. While it's not nearly as weird and wild as its Monday night companion piece Sleepy Hollow, this could be a formidable fantasy block in the weeks to come.
SUNDAY'S HIGH DRAMA: As if a deadly viral epidemic and busted prison gates weren't enough, now the villainous Governor (David Morrissey) is back to bedevil the beleaguered prison gang on AMC's The Walking Dead (9/8c). I'm betting Rick will regret casting out Carol, and not just because he'll now have to explain things to Daryl. She's awfully handy in a crisis, and the return of last season's Big Bad sure seems to qualify as one.
The Dead episode wasn't available for review, but I've seen the penultimate hour of the current "Red John" arc on CBS's The Mentalist (10/9c), which is quite eventful. With only one episode left until the actual reveal and face-to-face showdown between the serial-killer fiend and the vengeful Patrick Jane (Simon Baker), it's fair to say that the list of suspects is narrowed considerably in the wake of the explosion at Jane's house. The CBI team is in "do not trust anyone in law enforcement" mode, as it becomes more clear just how widespread the "Tiger Tiger" conspiracy is. There's plenty of action, and another climactic reversal that leaves Jane and us praying for an end to this ordeal. Unless there's another aggravating football overrun next week to pre-empt the big reveal, we're all about to get our answer and some much-needed closure.
Before The Mentalist, there's another dose of CBS's electrifying The Good Wife (9/8c), so riveting since the firm's split - and the good news this week is that Alicia and Cary's crew finally move into actual office space. ... On my other favorite Sunday dramas, Showtime's provocative Masters of Sex (10/9c), take a moment to savor the range of Allison Janney. On Mondays, this brilliant character actress goes triumphantly over the top on CBS's Mom as the title character's debauched mother, while on Sex, as the long-neglected wife of unhappily closeted university provost Beau Bridges, she breaks the heart as she exposes her unhappy soul: "When the person who knows you best loses interest, that really takes something out of you. Like surgery, almost."
Speaking of surgery, the progressive Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) is acing her anatomy class, to the chagrin of her severe teacher Dr. DePaul (Julianne Nicholson) - so much for sisterhood - and the consternation of Virginia's partner-in-research Dr. Masters (Michael Sheen), who wants her focus nowhere but on the project, which goes to the next level by inviting cameras where they've never before explored. Back on the domestic front, when Masters' lonely wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) strikes up a friendship with an African-American handyman, I'm sure I'm not the only one who will be hearing echoes of the soundtrack to the Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven.
THE FRIDAY GUIDE: With Almost Human taking root on Mondays, Fox's Bones is finally - after years of network threats - moving to Fridays (9/8c), following back-to-back episodes of Raising Hope (8/7c), which also deserves better. Hope kicks off its fourth season on a strong note, with a delightful "memory reset" group song to remind the addled Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman) what's been going on. Jeffrey Tambor guests as a mystery man with a Chance family connection, which when revealed leads to a gloriously warped lesson in tolerance. ... With the hope that its loyal audience will find it on a night long considered a Fox graveyard, Bones places its title character on the jury of a murder trial. ... By coincidence, this is also a subplot on CBS's Blue Bloods (10/9c), when Danny plays out a 12 Angry Men scenario as the sole dissenting member in a jury room. ... Blue Bloods star Tom Selleck narrates Showtime's sports documentary Against the Tide (10/9c), which looks at a fateful 1970 season-opener match-up between coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's University of Alabama Crimson Tide and USC coach John McKay's racially integrated Trojans, which led the way for Alabama to break down its color barrier a year later.
THE SATURDAY GUIDE: Don't hold your applause. Lady Gaga is hosting NBC's Saturday Night Live (11:30/10:30c) for the first time, doubling as musical guest (her third such gig), and we can only imagine the costume changes. ... CBS News's Bob Schieffer was a print reporter for Fort Worth, Texas, when he was on site at the Kennedy assassination 50 years ago. He recalls the tragedy in a 48 Hours Presents special As It Happened: John F. Kennedy 50 Years (9/8c), which revisits the network's historic coverage of the events in Dallas and beyond. ... Another national calamity is recalled in Science Channel's docudrama The Challenger Disaster (9/8c), starring William Hurt as Dr. Richard Feynman, the Nobel physicist who as part of a presidential commission investigated the cause of the Space Shuttle Challenger's 1986 explosion. ... Spike Lee directs HBO's film version of Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth (8/7c), the heavyweight champ's biographical one-man Broadway show.
THE SUNDAY GUIDE: There's another double U-turn on CBS's The Amazing Race (8/7c), and can we hope one of them takes out the obnoxious Marie? ... The Weather Channel takes a break from Mother Nature to introduce viewers to Freaks of Nature in a new series (10/9c) that profiles people who defy nature by exposing themselves to extremes of cold, fire, ocean depths and super-speeds. ... Among the most poignant accounts of the JFK tragedy: TLC's Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy (9/8c), in which celebrities read from the archives of the more than 800,000 missives written to widowed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the months following the assassination. ... Kevin Spacey narrates Smithsonian Channel's The Day Kennedy Died (9/8c), a minute-by-minute account of the events in Dallas that no one will ever forget, not that TV will ever let us.
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