It all starts well: Marty and the Pod are headed into the banquet being thrown for the merger. They’re all pissed-off and don’t give a fuck, which is always promising for both comedy and drama. House Of Lies immediately follows up on that, utilizing its best freeze-frame convention yet: Marty says 15 out of 16 people are losing their job, gets up on stage, and shoots them with his fingers, Spaced-style. He even refers back to the economic satire promised in the pilot, saying “Welcome to the new economy, where only the richest, meanest, smartest will survive.”
Then things get a little weaker. House Of Lies pulls the in medias res “Three Days Earlier” conceit—a television trope which has grown so stale. It’s not as bad as most uses of the conceit, because it doesn’t involve a cliffhanger at the very peak of the drama, but I’m not sure that totally makes the time-jumping work (until the end of the episode, which has its own problems).
With the merger imminent, Marty has no idea what to do, until his ex-wife comes in and promises an exchange. If he gives her something she wants, she’ll give him information that can help stop the merger: There’s a culture of sexual harassment at Galweather—Marco promises young women promotions in exchange for getting to screw them. This works well on two levels. First, we’ve seen the sexual harassment in action, through Jeannie initially, then another young woman in the last episode. And yes, of course this is sexual harassment and illegal, but the show has done a good (too good?) of a job of showing Galweather as a pit of poor behavior filled with people who believe that they’re above the law.
It’s also good, or at least interesting, because it adds depth to Monica’s character. Before, she’s been a whirlwind of hedonism and ruthlessness; here, she’s actually doing something… nice (?) for Marty. Obviously she gets something out of the deal, but there’s a level of characterization, even subtlety, that House Of Lies hasn’t deployed before. It could be an accident, though, a way for the show’s writers to get themselves out of the hole they’ve dug themselves into without taking much time. So it goes with House Of Lies: The show has lost enough goodwill that even when it seems to get something right, I think it’s because it’s doing something wrong with unintended positive consequences.
The sexual-harassment lawsuit requires someone to step forward and start a class action suit, which seems like it’s not a realistic legal option, but it is one that’s good for building drama for Jeannie. If you’re expecting that this leads up to a Veronica Mars-esque moment where she does the right thing even though it might cost her personally, well, you’ll get it. Kind of. Kristen Bell is a good enough actress that she plays it as drunken Jeannie, not kickass Veronica, and while that may be more consistent for House Of Lies, it’s still something of a disappointment for me. That said, I just couldn’t really buy Jeannie grabbing the mic and putting her personal life out there—and having it work, as Clyde yells “You are Sluticus!”
It’s not as bad as Clyde and Doug bumbling their way through asking other employees if they’ve been sexually harassed, a task they’re uniquely unsuited for. Still, I started to almost buy Clyde and Doug’s rivalry here, even though Doug’s pathetic need for validation is nearly as grating as the hook-up game.
The episode ends with Marty apparently victorious, but the aftermath isn’t so pretty. Jeannie breaks up with her fiancé, who finally demonstrates a personality, and acts like a jerk. Roscoe, pissed off at his dad’s obsession with work over fatherhood, decides to move in with his mother. And the reason for both is revealed… Marty and Jeannie finally(?) hook up. Or at least, it’s implied that they do. As with Monica’s motivations earlier, it’s unclear exactly why this happens now. The rush of adrenaline, perhaps, or a newfound respect for one another. I just know that I rolled my eyes at it. It felt less like added depth, and more like a twist for its own sake.
House Of Lies, season one:
I don’t think there’s any way to say that this hasn’t been a disappointment. On one hand, the pilot wasn’t good, so perhaps expectations shouldn’t have been too high to begin with. And, to be fair, the show has improved since the pilot.
The disappointment is that the things that could make this show interesting, or “edgy,” or even special, have largely disappeared. Yes, the pilot was a mess, with half a dozen different tones and directions the show could go with. But the one it picked—character/office drama focused almost entirely on Don Cheadle’s character, while not the worst option (that would be the show turning into the new Entourage) was also one that basically only gave us Cheadle as a strength. In order to do so, the show gave up any pretense of being a comedy, despite a gifted cast of comedic actors. More than that, it’s given up on the idea that it was a satire, or even a trenchant commentary on the modern economic times.
If House Of Lies follows the best impulses of this finale, and if it manages bring humor and especially satire back into its core development, it has the chance to dramatically improve. But I can’t shake the belief that the most interesting scenes in the finale were largely accidental, and that it’s decided to go straight soap opera. That makes it a competent, sometimes entertaining show, yes—but not one to get excited about.
Season grade: C+