The Strategy Of Putting Politics On TV
JOHN DONVAN, HOST:
Now, you've probably noticed this. Political drama is not confined to just the news on TV these days. We are in an era that is seeing a proliferation of politically themed television and other forms of streaming. And maybe you've also noticed shows like "Veep."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VEEP")
JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Vice President Selina Meyer) I'm the vice president of the United States, you stupid little (bleep).
DONVAN: And "Alpha House."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALPHA HOUSE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (unintelligible) why somebody prepared to apply (bleep) national committee.
DONVAN: ...and "House of Cards."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF CARDS")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You know what? I don't have a (bleep) shred of real influence. I'm trotted around like a (bleep) mascot, and this is my home state.
DONVAN: Wow. Saltier language and darker themes make it clear that those tame, "West Wing" days are over. In an age of endless campaigning and protracted stalemate in real-life Washington, it seems that a new crop of political shows is reflecting - or perhaps shaping - the way that we see and understand our elected officials. Now, we would particularly like to hear from you among our listeners who actually hold office today, and we want to know, as you watch these things, is there something in particular from these new shows that rings true to you, or do you have some objections? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Now, we are joined by Jonathan Alter. He is a reporter and a columnist and a TV analyst. He is also the executive producer of the new Amazon original, "Alpha House," which tells the story of four Republican senators who live together in a rented House in Washington, D.C. Jonathan joins us now from our New York bureau. John, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
JONATHAN ALTER: Thanks, John.
DONVAN: So in terms of reflecting reality, surely our elected officials don't talk in language that needs to be bleeped in real life (unintelligible).
ALTER: Well, you know, it's funny. I - first of all, I didn't write the script for "Alpha House." One of my co-executive producers, Garry Trudeau of "Doonesbury" fame, it's his creation. And it does have a fair measure of profanity in it, as anybody who goes to the Amazon site - which is the only place it's available - can see with free download of the pilot.
But I do think that that reflects the reality. Certainly when I was - I've just completed my second book about Obama and the political climate in Washington, and I have to say that there's a lot of the f-word in both "The Promise" - which was the first book I wrote on this - and "The Center Holds," which is coming out in June. Many, if you did a search, you would find many of - many such f-words, and that's because that's the way they talk. And if you're a reporter or if you are writing a comedy, if you're Garry Trudeau, you want to reflect the way these politicians actually talk, not the way they talked on sort of sanitized network television where you can't use the f-word.
DONVAN: Right. And what's interesting is about the shows that we just - the excerpted bleeps from. None of them are regular network shows. "Veep" is on HBO. An interesting thing happened with Netflix and "House of Cards," in which the entire series was created just to appear on Netflix, which you stream. And then your show has the most interesting new configuration. You have alluded to it a little bit, but what's the game you're in with "Alpha House" in terms of distribution to the public?
ALTER: So, this is a brave new world, I think the exciting new world of online television. And people are now familiar with Netflix and "House of Cards." So the next - for those who like politics, you know, the next one of these online is "Alpha House," if it gets picked up. But the Amazon model is different than the Netflix "House of Cards" model. Their business model released 13 episodes at once, so people could binge on "House of Cards." The Amazon model was to release, last week, eight pilots on different topics. Some of them are - were for kids. "Alpha House" is the only political one, and people are now voting at the Amazon site after they watched the free download. It's 25 minutes long. It's a pilot. So far, so good. But like a politician, I want to ask for everybody's vote. If you go...
DONVAN: Wow. That is...
ALTER: If you go to the Amazon site and go to "Alpha House," that's the name of the show, many...
DONVAN: It puts ratings in a whole new set.
ALTER: Yes, it does. It - well, it being crowd-sourced. Now that's not the only factor that Amazon will use when they're determining whether to pick it up and let us shoot another 12 episodes this year. But the number of people who watch it, and especially the number of people who watched all 25 minutes of it is very important. Right now, it's free. If we shoot - if we go to series and we shoot 13 episodes, then at the end of the year, when they all come out, you'll need to subscribe to Amazon Prime, which gives you free shipping on Amazon and the rest. But right now, it's free.
DONVAN: Let's hear a little bit of - from that pilot episode, "Alpha House." Here's a character, Senator Robert Bettencourt. He's played by Clark Johnson. And he's approaching Senator Andy Guzman, who is played by Mark Consuelos. And he's pitching him on moving into the house that this group of congressmen and senators share after Guzman had some rather amorous activities in a Capitol cloakroom.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALPHA HOUSE")
CLARK JOHNSON: (as Senator Robert Bettencourt) Hey, Andy. You got a minute, there?
MARK CONSUELOS: (as Senator Andy Guzman) Hey, Robert. What do you think I should read: the Bill of Rights, or emails from the ex-wife's boyfriend?
JOHNSON: (as Senator Robert Bettencourt) We've probably going to talk for both. Listen, are you still looking for a place to live?
CONSUELOS: (as Senator Andy Guzman) I am, I am. Why?
JOHNSON: (as Senator Robert Bettencourt) Well, because Louis and Gil John and I are looking for a roommate, and you seem like someone who could really use a room.
CONSUELOS: (as Senator Andy Guzman) You've got that right. It's hard to have a date.
JOHNSON: (as Senator Robert Bettencourt) Yeah, I know. I heard you dating this morning. Woke me up, in fact.
CONSUELOS: (as Senator Andy Guzman) Sorry. That's just between the three of us, right?
JOHNSON: (as Senator Robert Bettencourt) Too late. It's high school. So what do you think?
CONSUELOS: (as Senator Andy Guzman) It's possible. I'd like to check out the house. It's not a dump, is it?
JOHNSON: (as Senator Robert Bettencourt) Are you kidding me? It's Louis' place. We have to use coasters. Won't you come by and take a look?
DONVAN: So, Jonathan Alter, this idea of members of Congress sharing a house together, can you tell us about the idea behind that storyline?
ALTER: Yeah. Some of your listeners may have read in The New York Times about a house that's owned by Congressman George Miller, and where Chuck Schumer, a senator from New York, and Richard Durbin, a senator from Illinois and Congressman Bill Delahunt from Massachusetts, they live in this house during the week, and have for many years. It goes back to the '70s. I heard about it about 20 years ago. And, you know, there are cereal bowls around the house on the hill.
And - so Gary read about this and talked to people like me who, you know, knew about it, and he wrote this pilot about this house. And it starts with a cameo from Bill Murray. Bill Murray is a senator who is asleep, and John Goodman, who's our star, will be in all of the episodes, comes into his room in this house and says, Vern - that's the senator who's sleeping, Bill Murray. Were you by, in any chance, suppose to turn yourself in to the DOJ this morning? And it turns out that Senator Smith, Bill Murray, is suppose to go to jail, and he goes on this profane tirade about being carted off to jail. That creates a vacancy in the House, which is filled by our Cuban-American senator from Florida, Senator Andy Guzman, he's called, played by Mark Consuelos.
DONVAN: Let's - you know, we're asking our listeners who actually hold office to reflect upon the current crop of television programs that portray their careers fictionally and whether they think is ring though enough. So we have Lana(ph) from Hocking County, Ohio. Hi, Lana. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
LANA: Well, I actually - I was telling your screeners that I don't watch a lot of political TV because I hold local office. So what we view is a lot different than the people who are the policymakers. I do, occasionally, catch the beginning of "Scandal," because it's on after a show that I watch, and I - it seems very ridiculous to me.
LANA: I don't go around knocking people off so that I can hold my position. I think that's probably a little...
DONVAN: Well, of course, you can say that, Lana.
LANA: I know, right? I'm not going to admit on national radio that I - yeah, that I threw someone in a lake, or whatever. But, frankly, and I think you're talking about salty language, and I may have been known from time to time to use that myself. But I think a lot of the shows that you're discussing are about men. And there's definitely a different perspective. People like - one, on the local level, I'm on display all the time. I mean, there's no - it's, oh, I'm in Washington, and so I'm just one of many, and no one really notices what it is that I'm doing.
I live here amongst my constituents, 24/7. I can't go to the grocery store in my pajamas. I can't - you know, that's - well, and behave badly, because then they'd notice. And I think that they also expect, because I'm a woman, that I should maybe not use as salty of language as maybe men get by with, you know.
DONVAN: But Jonathan Alter, I almost think that what Lana's saying is sort of does actually confirm that the people who live these lives and not living ordinary lives, and therefore, it is a little bit of a freak show, the life of a politician.
ALTER: Yeah. I mean, it is, but part of what, I think, Garry Trudeau is trying to in "Alpha House" is to show that in some ways, they are just like, you know, other people. They're living in a man-cave, you know, bunking together during the week. Many people in state legislatures do this when the legislature is in session. They don't go all the way, you know, upstate or downstate to their families during the week when the legislature is in session.
So this is a - you know, some critic said that it wasn't real-life situation. It is. It's obviously - it's a satire. So we take a lot of liberties, and at a certain point, it becomes, you know, meta, as they say.
So at the end, for instance, of "Alpha House," our fake senator goes on "The Colbert Report" with a fake anchor, Stephen Colbert, in front of a real audience, "The Colbert Report" audience. But, you know, when we were taping it, I just - the kind of absurdity of it - we had an actor, Matt Malloy, playing the senator. We had Stephen Colbert playing his character, and it got a little confusing, but it was hilarious, especially when they ended up wrestling on the floor of the studio at the end of the interview.
So, you know, we try to take some - a kernel of something real that's familiar to people, and then make it absurd. So, no, people are not having sex in cloakroom of the U.S. Senate. But if we move back into an era of what they call a talking filibuster, like Rand Paul conducted a few weeks ago, you know, you'll see a return to an older tradition where they bring cats into the Senate and they stay there all night with these all-night filibusters. And we may now be on a threshold of a new era of such filibuster. So that's something real that we're making ridiculous and funny - we hope.
DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, on NPR News.
We have an email from Johnny, who writes one line: As much as I love the dark political dramas, day-to-day government is a lot more like "Parks and Rec" than "House of Cards."
ALTER: That's a good point.
DONVAN: Yeah. So what do you think, Jonathan, is going on with - I do think that there's a much more intense collection of shows focusing on Washington right now than there have ever been, some comic and some serious. You know, we could reel off four or five. What's happening with that?
ALTER: Well, I think there are two factors. One, I would call "The West Wing" effect. So, for many years "The West Wing," in primetime, you know, in the heart of the television empire, did extremely well. And that broke new ground because it had been thought in the past that politics was kind of a turn off. You could do a doctor show, a courtroom show, a police show, but that you really couldn't make it in primetime with politics. And Aaron Sorkin proved that to be wrong. So it spawned a whole generation of things.
But the other thing that I think is an even a bigger factor is that the monopoly on television that the networks had has been broken. And this, to me, this era that we're now, it's only just starting in the last few months with Netflix and now Amazon jumping in, and a lot of other content providers about to jump in.
It's the end of an era and the beginning of a very exciting new era, where viewers are going to have a lot more content choices, and you can do more niche broadcasting. You don't have to worry about the people who aren't interested in politics, because if you get enough of those who are and want to laugh and, you know, maybe they've love John Goodman or they read "Doonesbury," you're going to, you know, get enough people in the tent to make money and subsidize more such television.
DONVAN: So you're sort of saying they've always been out there. There just maybe weren't enough of them to justify doing a program on a network that was supposed to hit 30 million viewers.
ALTER: Right. Exactly. So this is - to me, it's like being in television in the early days when, you know, radio was kind of giving way to television in the early '50s, or the dawn of cable television in the early '80s. Online television is knocking at the door, and it's going to provide a lot more options for people, a lot more experimentation.
And the other thing that's highly unusual about the Amazon model is instead of leaving it up to a bunch of suits, you know, with the help of focus groups, it's crowd-sourced. Amazon calls it You Call the Shots, you know, the - and the public really has a role to play in deciding which pilots are gong to go series.
DONVAN: Jonathan, it's a new game for you. You do journalism. You've just talked about in your - all of your books have been, you know, documentary, in effect. They're meant to reflect reality, be reality. And now you're making a show with made-up people. What's that about? For you, what's that about?
ALTER: It's just a fun thing to do that, honestly, I fell into a little bit by accident. But I like - and I've always liked working in different media, you know. So I'm on MSNBC, and I write books and I was at Newsweek for many years. So I've been in magazines and television. And it just keeps my professional life more interesting for me to mix it up this way.
DONVAN: But at heart, there's something very different between you get to make the guys up, and you have to report what they actually said. It's a different game.
ALTER: Yes, yes. And I'm just, you know, finishing - I just finished a lot of the fact-checking on "The Center Holds," which is the first book out about the campaign. And, you know, I'm fanatic about factual accuracy in that, because when you go to as much trouble as reporters do to find out the truth, you really want it to be right. And in some ways, it's kind of liberating to work, you know, in another part of my life, in fiction and satire, where you don't have to worry about that. Although, one of my jobs on "Alpha House'" is to provide some verisimilitude about the way things work in Washington. So things...
DONVAN: It's still got to be real.
ALTER: It's got to be real. And if it sounds fake, I think that the viewers notice that real quickly.
DONVAN: Right. Jonathan Alter is the executive producer of the new Amazon original "Alpha House." He is author most recently of "The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies," and joined us today from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much, Jonathan.
ALTER: Thanks, John.
DONVAN: Tomorrow, a high-tech edition of our series, looking ahead. We'll take with tech columnist Farhad Manjoo. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm John Donvan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.