House of Lies: Season 1

House of LiesMy evaluation of the pilot of House of Lies was “yes, but with some reservations” which was good enough for me to set the series link on it once it finally arrived on Sky Atlantic. At the end of the 12 episode season I haven’t really changed my opinion – “yes, but with some reservations”.

The show maintains the shameless ‘wrongness’ that it introduced in the pilot. The characters (both regular and one-shot) are all after power and money and will screw over pretty much anyone to further their sky-high ambitions. They lie, manipulate, threaten, bribe and entrap to get what they want, and the only excuse for that behaviour is that everyone is doing exactly the same to them. Whenever someone displays a rare flash of conscience, they are immediately pounced on by the other members of the pack and inevitably ends up far worse off. It’s a brave direction for a show to take and it makes House of Lies unusual and intriguing, although of course not somewhere you’d want to spend too much time.

The other thing that’s interesting and unusual is the style of the show, particularly the ability of Don Cheadle’s character to break the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience and forcing upon them a connection to the world within the show. It’s a tricky thing to pull off and it’s done beautifully here, making good use of the extremely charismatic Cheadle. I was worried that it might get old, particularly the way the action occasionally pauses and Cheadle walks through a frozen scene, but it stayed fresh and entertaining all the way through.

The only thing that causes me pause with the series is that some of the characters are phenomenally annoying, and far too ridiculous to be credible in even this environment. The two male team members (whose names I still can’t remember) are no more than idiot college boys (one frat boy, one nerd), with utterly no redeeming qualities and every time they were on screen I was annoyed. Similarly Cheadle’s ex-wife and his ‘nemesis’ who is trying to take over the company were utterly over-the-top pantomime villains. Those four people just didn’t feel like they should be in the same league as Cheadle or Kristen Bell, both of whom had complex and layered characters.

As comedies go, it’s not really a “rolling in the aisles” kind of show, more a “knowing snort and cynical chuckle” affair, mind you I rarely find the comedies labelled as hilarious to be anything of the sort. The majority of House of Lies is witty, slick and blackly funny. There is however a minority thread of crudeness that runs through it, which can’t quite be forgiven just because some of the characters roll their eyes at it. The half hour format works well with the plots dispensed with brutally fast and the irritating elements never quite getting enough screen time to push me into switching off.

I can see that House of Lies isn’t for everyone, the subject and characters are a pretty tough sell. But I do think that it’s innovative, challenging and entertaining in a way that other shows that get more attention actually fail to deliver (see my review of Girls later this week). I also think that Don Cheadle’s Emmy Award winning performance alone is enough to make this show watchable, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes in season 2.

House of Lies: Pilot Review

A small team of Management Consultants are out to make money by screwing over anyone they can – big business, banks, strippers, ex-wives and the competition.

The client of the week (which I’m guessing is the model they’ll use for each episode) is a giant US bank which is widely hated because of their contribution to the financial collapse that has left so many of its clients literally out on the streets. They’re hiring management consultants because they want to take their giant bonuses, but also don’t want the cripplingly bad PR and loss of business. Yeah, they’re not particularly nice people.

Mind you, neither are our ‘heroes’ the management consultants. The usually loveable rogue Don Cheadle is rather more roguish here, sleeping with three women in the pilot alone including his ex-wife and a stripper who he later takes to a business dinner pretending to be his wife. The usually adorable Kristen Bell is a hardnosed business psychiatrist, and the two blokes that round out the team (I didn’t even bother to pick up their names) are basically sleazy, womanising jerks. Their concerns are sex and money and that’s about it. There’s a passing attempt to soften Cheadle’s character by introducing a son with issues and a suggestion of a traumatic childhood, but it felt too contrived and awkward to really come across as anything other than manipulative.

Eventually, after a visit to a strip club, sex in a bathroom and a fist fight in a restaurant, we reach the climax of the episode – the pitch to the board. It’s the defining moment of the show – is House of Lies about a group with a heart of gold who manage to come up with a solution that will play well with an audience angry with big business, or will it be about a group who pander to their clients just so they can get a job and make the money? Either direction has a lot of possibilities, but quite different appeals.

I agonised about whether to reveal the answer in this review; I’d normally avoid spoilers but on this occasion I think I’m going to have to give it away, because without knowing what the show is trying to be I can’t review it properly. Because if the show had chosen the heart of gold option I would have had to say it wasn’t very good and you’d be better off going and watching Leverage or White Collar – you can’t have a heart of gold group that are just plain unlikeable. Fortunately the show takes (in my opinion) the more interesting option that these characters are exactly what they seem to be – they find ways for rich people to have their cake and eat it, just so that they can get a small slice for themselves.

I had to watch the pilot twice to try to come to some sort of conclusion as to whether I actually liked it or not. I think I’m going to come down on the side of ‘yes’ but with some reservations. The show has a lot of style to it, I particularly liked the freeze frame and directly talking to camera snaps to explain the jargon that’s used without having cheesy exposition inserted into the dialogue. However it’s going to need considerably more subtle handling if they want the characters to be genuinely interesting, I don’t necessarily need them to be hugely likeable, but I do need them to be three-dimensional and not completely hateful. It is however being ‘sold’ as a comedy rather than a drama, and given that I did laugh a few times, it’s considerably more successful than any other comedy I’ve seen in recent years.

A word of note – there really is a lot of gratuitous nudity and swearing. I think the swearing does serve a purpose, basically indicating that these people are in many ways quite childish, thinking that swearing makes them seem big and clever, when really it just makes them seem crass and stupid. That’s clever writing. What’s less clever though is the use of nudity, which there’s no real *need* for and just comes across as the director trying to be big and clever and instead coming across as crass and stupid. See, it works both ways.

Other Reviews
TV Fanatic – There’s a good show somewhere inside House of Lies.

CliqueClack – While I dug the first three episodes of this series, and — as I said — I dig seeing Kristen Bell on my screen, I can’t say that I’m on board for the long haul.