Amazon’s first two original series fail to impress

The technology-addicted stars of Alpha House.

Two and a half stars

Alpha House Now available on Amazon.

Two stars

Betas Premieres November 22 on Amazon.

Netflix debuted its first original series, House of Cards, with a massive promotional blitz, but Amazon seems to have taken the opposite approach with the debuts of its own first two original series. There has been very little advertising for Alpha House or Betas, and visitors to Amazon’s main home page won’t see a single reference or link to either program. Amazon is also handling the rollout of the shows differently, making the first three episodes available for free, and then premiering one episode a week thereafter only for subscribers to Amazon Prime.

The questionable promotion and release strategy aside, the shows themselves are mostly unimpressive. Unlike Netflix, which has focused on sprawling, serious dramas, Amazon is starting out with comedy, and Alpha House is a political satire about four Republican senators who live in a house together, while Betas is about the creators of an online startup in Silicon Valley. House has the more impressive pedigree: It was created by renowned political cartoonist Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury), and it stars John Goodman as one of the four senators. Betas is more like a traditional web series given a larger platform, with its cast of mostly unknowns (although Ed Begley Jr. has a supporting role as a venture capitalist) and its grubby workplace setting.

House’s creative team and production values would make it feel at home on HBO or Showtime (or Netflix), but the show ends up as pretty weak satire, relying mostly on familiar jokes about Republican hypocrisy (the stridently anti-gay senator is obviously in the closet, the senator who touts trust and hard work is under an ethics investigation, etc.). Still, Trudeau makes an effort to give his characters more than one dimension, and the cast (especially Goodman as a pompous Southerner) is excellent.

Betas is less ambitious and less successful. Like a cross between The Big Bang Theory and Entourage, it features a mix of obvious nerd-culture jokes, lowbrow bro humor and half-hearted character development. By the third episode, the character dynamics start to feel a little more organic, but the jokes are still pretty crass and poorly crafted. If Amazon is making it tough for viewers to find Betas, it doesn’t seem like much of a loss.

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