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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today, online retailer Amazon debuts the first original comedy series made exclusively for its site. "Alpha House" is a Washington, D.C. satire created by "Doonesbury's" Garry Trudeau with help from Newsweek writer Jonathan Alter. But NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says Amazon's answer to Netflix's groundbreaking "House of Cards" has a long way to go before it makes a similar impact.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: There's about a dozen reasons why I really wanted to love "Alpha House," Amazon's new comedy series about four senators sharing a home on Capitol Hill. The biggest reason, often-underrated star John Goodman, playing a politician up for re-election who knows exactly what voters value in a legislator.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALPHA HOUSE")

JOHN GOODMAN: (as Senator Gil John Briggs) I'm being primaried by a guy who's had two mini strokes since he announced. Who's going to vote for a walking time bomb? Besides, everybody in that state knows my record. Two undefeated seasons, 11 conference titles, two national championships.

DEGGANS: Nothing snags votes like a little sports-connected fame. And Goodman's Gil John Biggs has coasted from a star basketball coaching career into a plum Senate seat from North Carolina. Biggs works hard to avoid hard work, coasting past token opponents in every election. Until now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALPHA HOUSE")

SUZANNA HAY: (as Maddie) Taylor had another stroke last night. He withdrew from the race.

GOODMAN: (as Senator Gil John Briggs) What? Now that's an outstanding development.

HAY: (as Maddie) Nah-uh, Honey Bear. Guess who just announced he's running now?

GOODMAN: (as Senator Gil John Briggs) Who?

HAY: (as Maddie) Digger Mancusi.

GOODMAN: (as Senator Gil John Briggs) Huh?

DEGGANS: It's every politician's worst nightmare: an opponent with a better coaching record. And Gil John faces this horror while living in a house with three other Republican senators - a philandering Latino legislator from Florida, an ethically-challenged African-American from Pennsylvania, and a possibly closeted gay man from Nevada.

The whole setup is inspired by an actual house filled with politicians in Washington. And it gives creator Garry Trudeau lots of latitude to poke at the hypocrisy of politicians, as seen here when African-American Senator Robert Bettencourt tries to explain his ethics charges to roommate Andy Guzman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALPHA HOUSE")

CLARK JOHNSON: (as Robert Bettencourt) It's a political lynching.

MARK CONSUELOS: (as Andy Guzman) Wow. Really? You're leading with the race card? You sure that's a good fit?

JOHNSON: (as Robert Bettencourt) Excuse me?

CONSUELOS: (as Andy Guzman) You're Mr. Accountability. A lynching sounds so early Al Sharpton. I mean, I'm sure people in Pennsylvania find a black senator interesting. But you've got to keep it interesting like Epcot Center, not interesting like "Django." But, hey, that's just me. I've only used my Cuban-American minority status on special occasions, you know, like small business loans. But whatever works for you, amigo.

DEGGANS: Still, character details that come uncomfortably close to stereotypes aren't even the biggest problem here. Unfortunately, the political satire in "Alpha House" has already been covered by better shows, like Netflix's "House of Cards" and HBO's "Veep." "Alpha House" is an important first step for Amazon, which will launch its second original series next Friday. The online retailer faces instant comparisons to Netflix, a pioneer in the original online series business that dumps every episode of a new season online all at once.

Amazon will release just three episodes of "Alpha House" to its Amazon Prime subscribers today, then unveil one new episode a week until the remaining eight have gone online. But even the show's stars don't really understand how the process works, like when Goodman stopped by "The Daily Show" to promote "Alpha House."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART")

JON STEWART: How does this Amazon thing - I didn't know Amazon did television shows. Is that a button you click on the site? Is that how...

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: Is that how it happens? Can you use...

GOODMAN: I don't know.

DEGGANS: That's OK, John. We're not quite sure what Amazon's up to either. While I don't love "Alpha House," I still like it, mostly because of the easy chemistry between Goodman and his costars. Together, they've made a fun series about a bunch of dysfunctional guys who just happen to be U.S. Senators. It's not going to make Amazon the next big name in original online television. But it just might make you look away from HBO or Netflix the next time you're looking for a funny show or two. And for Amazon, that just might be enough.

CORNISH: Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic.

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