House Of Lies Watch: Amsterdam

Showtime’s House of Lies didn't impress last week with its premiere "Gods of Dangerous Financial Instruments." Too much style and not enough substance. However, with a core cast (Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson) this talented and usually so enjoyable to watch, the series has to improve right? "Amsterdam" was still far from something I'd recommend but if anything it was definitely a vast improvement. And not only that, the series' second episode even contained a truly great sequence. There's hope but first...

"You have to be willing to violate. Violate personal space. Violate manners. Violate the law. Hell, violate every molecule so all that is left is the yes."

It's fitting that in the opening recap Cheadle's Marty Kaan explains that every week his team, the Pod, will meet with a different client and try to bilk them out of their money. On the surface, that's rather interesting because, unlike the medical, police and law procedurals we're so accustomed to, a consulting procedural is seemingly new. It also offers a nice structure for not just the shows but the series. It appears that House of Lies will be both episodic and serialized, focusing on a new client each week as well as developing the character conflicts and relationships over time. Unfortunately for the show, neither seems to work all that well just yet.

The episode opens with a sequence as horrible as any of the worst parts of last week. Again, the stylistic trappings are annoying and weigh everything down. Marty's at lunch with a possible client and he plays up how dire the circumstances will be if they don't work with Galweather & Stern. However, the speech is so over-the-top, accentuated by the flashy visuals and too easy and obvious use of the gospel music, that I can't possibly see any savvy business man buying the bullshit. Despite my reservations, Kaan's a closer and he doesn't just finish the deal with the sweaty business head but also manages to finish with his ex-wife, consulting competitor and all-around horrible person. I'll admit, while not amused by the psycho-sex, I did laugh at the two them saying the safe word in unison. Amsterdam!

"They're close friends of mine. So, I'd like to see what you can do for 'em. I mean, don't undercharge them for God sakes."

The rest of the episode was considerably better. It was less concerned with being really cool and actually delivered some genuine(ly funny) moments for the main characters. Kaan arrives back at the offices of G&S smelling like a closer while the hapless Doug has taken to wearing vanilla or, as Clyde puts it, "after-shavey cookies" to impress the ladies. Marty is soon pulled away by a (weekly?) call from his son's principal. She is again very concerned with the other parents' concern over Roscoe's 'gender bending' and the scene plays like a complete re-hash of last week's events between the pair.

The Pod are sent to see their boss Skip (Richard Schiff) who, along with 'The Rainmaker' - introduced in one of those annoying, fourth wall breaking asides - in turn sends them to Phoenix to meet with this week's client. I wish I had more to say about the scene since there were so many great actors present yet it was pretty forgettable (save the one good quote above in bold). On the way to the plane, Jeannie receives a call from a former flame and the boys all follow her around listening intently. Any scene with Bell taking the lead is a good scene. At the airport, Cat Deeley - who was briefly mentioned before - sits down across from the vanilla smelling Doug and he does his best to pick her up. Unfortunately for Doug, mid-krump he spills coffee all over himself. Fortunately for Doug, Deeley steps in to pat him dry. Another enjoyable sequence, especially the way it's filmed to position his co-workers as another audience (a participating one in Clyde's case), even if it goes a step or two too far when Doug ultimately blows it. "Don't look at me."

They arrive in Phoenix and the week's procedural thread finally gets going. After a brief walk and talk bit of exposition to introduce the client to us - a sports franchise whose owners are a couple on the verge of divorce - the Pod are quickly ushered in to pitch. Cheadle shines during these fast talking monologues but I find it hard to believe that his disciples, I mean team, would be standing around in awe, talking about how good he is right in the middle of the meeting. Anyway, the briefing quickly breaks into bickering and the series confuses screaming vulgarities for comedy. They leave to prepare the next phase of the pitch while Jeannie excuses herself for her date. Too bad that her former man, a Joel McHale knock-off, is just a head hunter only there on business. Bell is really wonderful in the scene and her character might be the only one worth liking (not that the two cronies, Lawson and Schwartz, aren't entertaining).

"Just say yes."

Jeannie arrives back at the strategy session and the boys can't help but be curious as to why she'd be returning to work immediately after a date. Surprisingly, the tight lipped lone female member of the Pod decides to share her romantic woes and it turns into the best scene of the series thus far. Actually, that's an understatement. The scene seamlessly turns the focus from Jeannie to Doug to Clyde and it's incredible to watch Cheadle and Bell as they watch Lawson and Schwartz play out the can Clyde pickup Cat Deeley scenario. I knew Schwartz was funny (he's great as Jean-Ralphio) but I didn't know he could carry a scene this well and/or deliver the range that he displayed here. Actually, all four work very well together and just like last week, the show is at its best when the core cast bicker, banter and bullshit with each other. It was truly a great sequence and fosters hope that the series might actually have a lot to offer.

Doug knocks on Marty's hotel room door in the middle of the night having found the one hundred million dollars that the husband/owner had hidden away to keep from losing in the divorce proceedings. And, in a sadly predictable move, the consulting team convinces him (using their knowledge of the money as leverage) that the best recourse is a 'fakeconciliation' with his wife in order to keep from losing the team to the league. This ending was not just foreshadowed throughout the episode but painfully telegraphed. I think I can remember at least three times where it's mentioned that 'if they only would stay together, the team would be fine, or something to that effect.

The episode closes on Jeannie confronting Marty about the head-hunter and if he's the reason the job offer has suddenly been rescinded. Of course he is, and to the show's credit, Jeannie's reaction is quite complex and interesting. She plays like she's mad but soon reveals (only to us) a huge grin, suggesting that she's just happy to be wanted. How nice for a not-so-nice show. Overall the episode was a giant leap forward. Last week I noted that even the second half of the pilot seemed much improved on the first and that trend also continued this week. Perhaps somewhere down the line, once the kinks are ironed out, this could be an interesting (and recommendable) series. And at least we know for sure that the cast will always be great, even if the material isn't.

House of Lies is on Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime. It stars Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz, Josh Lawson, Dawn Oliveri, Glynn Turman and Donis Leonard Jr. It was created by Matthew Carnahan.