This TV season, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Rowan Kaiser, who’ll review the show week to week, and Erik Adams talk about House Of Lies.
House Of Lies debuts tonight on Showtime at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Rowan Kaiser: Have you seen the House Of Lies ads that say “They’re the 1 percent sticking it to the 1 percent!” If you have, you’re probably expecting a certain kind of show. But if you’ve just watched this House Of Lies pilot, that might not be the conclusion you reach. It’s quite the opposite, in fact, as the supposed heroes of the show end up finding the perfect way for their bankster clients to screw over the little guy.
What it looks like to me, from the outside, is that Showtime greenlit House Of Lies, only to have it run right into a set of political events that made it look bad. Specifically, the Occupy movement—with its “1 percent” language—makes the rich-people-having-wacky-adventures side of House Of Lies more than slightly tone deaf, and I think the people behind the show may realize that. And maybe if they embrace that idea, it’ll make House Of Lies less awful in the future.
I don’t mean that House Of Lies is awful in terms of quality—although it’s not good—but rather that it’s terrible thematically. Marty, the main character, defends his management consultant job as “real” on the grounds that it earns him a seven-figure salary. The main characters, including the one female of the crew, all go to a strip club on their clients’ dime for a montage that can only be described as exploitative. And yes, that resolution where Marty and company explain to a deservedly hated bank how they can flip their image without losing any money is just icky.
Ickiness can be good when it’s attached to good storytelling. Conceptually, I can’t say that this is so different from Arrested Development and its hideous rich people. But those hideous rich people were funny, yet there aren’t many laughs in House Of Lies. Kristen Bell is game and lets off some good one-liners, and a dinner party that quickly turns to farce has a few good moments (including some redemption for an otherwise unnecessary lesbian sex scene from a few minutes before). House Of Lies is a bit different from Showtime’s normal half-hour shows, in that it is a straightforward comedy instead of a drama-in-comic-clothes like Weeds or The Big C, but that doesn’t mean that it’s actually a good comedy. It could be someday, but that doesn’t show up in the pilot.
Or, in a more serious antihero comparison: Tony Soprano was the focus of a fantastic examination of masculinity and the American dream, and an amusing guy to boot. The ever-excellent Don Cheadle does his best to invest Marty with depth, and he actually succeeds to some extent. Marty, privately, expresses disappointment with his gender-bending son, but publicly, he’ll defend the kid, especially against his “sociopathic” ex-wife and business rival. The character-building part of the episode comes from his sparring with Bell’s Jeannie, a business psychologist who sees him as a lonely, scared man trying to bluff his way through life. In a totally unsubtle last scene, he seems to be about to confess his discomfort with the shallowness of his life to Jeannie… but he’s not there yet.
I’d buy the show as a comic character study and redemption tale for Marty, except that House Of Lies is just as shallow and slick as he is. The show’s style is so heavily stylized and artificially slick that it’s almost impossible to take seriously. The partying montage looks like an MTV video, without irony. Every so often, when a piece of marketing jargon is used, Marty will essentially call “time out” like Zack from Saved By The Bell in order to explain what it means. It’s a terrible conceit, and not aided by when one character tells him “we don’t want to be counseled out” and Marty dutifully explains that “counseled out” means “fired,” as if that wasn’t totally clear from context. Sometimes it works—when Cheadle is holding signs indicating strategy instead of talking to the camera, it’s pretty amusing. But the whole feel is that this show isn’t meant to be taken seriously, at all.
I want like this show, I really do. The cast is sensational—any show starring Cheadle and Bell deserves to taken seriously. The premise could make for great television. But House Of Lies is being pulled in too many different directions. Is it a character study? A farce? A pointed satire of the way the rich operate in America? Lifestyle porn, à la Entourage? Or just a slick, sexy comedy that happens to have a premise that implies depth? With so much going on, House Of Lies is fascinatingly awful. Right now I’d wager more money that it gets more awful before it gets more fascinating, but I would be delighted to be proven wrong.
Erik Adams: You’ve hit upon both of my major complaints about the pilot, Rowan: Marty’s gimmicky fourth wall-breaking and the whiplash-inducing tonal clash. Having watched next week’s episode in addition to “The Gods Of Dangerous Financial Instruments,” it would appear that the “time out” stuff will be toned down for the remainder of the season—but it appears it takes more than two episodes for this thing to figure itself out. One element to keep in mind while watching future episodes is the creative talent involved behind the camera: House Of Lies was created by Matthew Carnahan (late of FX’s “Courtney Cox as gossip monger” series Dirt) and adapted from the exposé of the same name by the one time head writer of Pop Up Video, Martin Kihn. (Kihn, who served a brief term in the consultancy biz, appears to be basis for two members of “The Pod”: Cheadle’s character, obviously, but also Josh Lawson’s number cruncher Doug, who bears a striking physical resemblance to Kihn.) No matter where Marty’s moral crises take him, corporate satire and musical video-style visuals are in this show’s DNA.
That said, I think House Of Lies has a greater chance of shining when it gives itself over to the strengths of that principal cast. The interplay between Bell, Cheadle, Lawson, and Ben Schwartz (playing a role that embodies every cliche of hard-hustling extravagance to which his skeezy Parks And Recreation character aspires) is key here, but it’s doled out very stingily in “The Gods Of Dangerous Financial Instruments.” Cheadle’s character may very well be the show’s focal point, but the best parts of the pilot are those which show how he deals with the few people in his life who keep him honest. (To that end, I also enjoy the at-home scenes with Cheadle, his father, and son, even if they do add an unnecessary flavor to an already complex stew.) After all, the show is called House Of Lies, not One-Bedroom Apartment Of Lies—as its multiple occupants get to have a greater say in the proceedings, the series will come off less like the slightly funny manifesto of one amoral, misanthropic prick with an MBA. Nonetheless, I’m betting amoral, misanthropic pricks with MBAs, those who want to be them, and those want to be with them will eat this shit up.