Showtime’s House of Lies improved significantly with the second episode of the series. "Amsterdam" succeeded when it stopped trying to be edgy - both stylistically and narratively - and instead just focused the four people who work at Galweather & Stearn. And it doesn't hurt that those four (Cheadle, Bell, Schwartz and Lawson) are great actors and great together. However, it does hurt when you don't give them anything to work with and almost all the positive second week growth was wasted in in the third with "Microphallus."
"Look. I'm going to smash your head in. Then I'm going to personally fuck your bashed-in eye socket."
The episode opens with Marty dreaming about his dead mother on the anniversary of her suicide. Cheadle does his best to make you try and feel sympathetic for his character upon waking but the whole scene rings false and tired. Roscoe is already awake and dancing when Marty enters the room and he immediately informs us of his latest temptation with taboo and boundary pushing - he's got a crush on a both a girl and a boy. It's sad that his character is once again used as a platform for shock instead of an actual exploration of a child growing up confused and looking for guidance. However, the next scene is oddly (and refreshingly) emotional between Marty and his father Jeremiah. Sure, it's almost as on the nose as everything else in the show - "it's what families do Marty" - but the two actors, Cheadle and Turman, are good enough to make it work.
As bad as a lot of this episode was, and it was bad, there were still improvements worth noting. There seems to be a desire to implement both an episodic and serialized mode of storytelling and even if the episodic was a major let-down, the serialized planted a few interesting seeds for the future. For example, "Microphallus" marked the return of Greg Norbert and MetroCaptial, the clients from the premiere, "Gods of Dangerous Financial Instruments." As much as I’ve been trying to forget that show, it now makes sense why it devoted so much of its time developing this Norbert character as it seems that MetroCapital will play a big part in the series after all. It’s actually one of the better elements of the episode and a smart move because it immediately adds conflict to counteract Marty’s apparent free reign at the firm. And it's not just promising because of the developing rivalry with Norbert but also since it hints at a wedge growing between Marty and Skip.
"Yeah, but you're not going to fuck her Marty. You're not going to fuck her Marty!?!"
However, the moments of promise - as well as the positive structural developments - were basically all erased by the more than lacklustre procedural part of "Microphallus." The part of the episode that involved, well, the titular tiny phallus was just about as inspired as the title itself. House of Lies seems to think that sexual 'edginess' will automatically translate into funny and or compelling television. It does not, and both the running gag - Doug's apparent encounter with a 'tranny' - and the dinner party - complete with the wife who loves 'black dick' as well as the husband's foot fetish and microphallus - were incredibly uninspired. I don't even want to get into how Clyde's ongoing joke with Doug completely undermines everything positive they are trying to with Marty's defense of his son's alternate lifestyle choices (even if they themselves seem there for the sake of being there) because it's already depressingly unfunny not to mention, been done before.
This week the procedural aspect of the show has the 'Pod' visiting yet another large corporation, however, this time the issue isn't about their image but instead about the implementation of a new ERP called Apache. Yeah, I don't really know what that means except that the CEO of this soft drink company wants to go ahead with the new development while both the CFO and middle management think it will have disastrous results. During the tour of the place, and our first and only Zach Morris-esque aside, Marty breaks down what is really going on, and that all that matters, as always, is leverage. Therefore, when the CFO's wife who "loves black dick" invites you and Jeannie over to the house for dinner, you go. And I guess when the wife wants you to have sex with her in her special room, you do that too. While Marty's side of the party was about as dull and unfunny as a sex romp can be, Jeannie's interaction with the CFO was a bit more compelling. And I don't mean that his foot fetish or the events were at all fresh but is was interesting to see that her character is willing to go as far as her boss.
"It is to me. It's personal, to me. And that's kind of what matters now, isn't it?"
There were a few good one liners that made their way into the script, like how Marty didn't want to 'put his foot in his mouth' when talking to the CFO. Too bad right after that, they have to go and spoil it when the CFO returns the barb by commenting on Marty's 'deep seeded issues' like we needed our mid-episdoe reminder that this is his mom committed suicide week. They do wrap up the procedural side of the show in a pretty interesting way, having Marty essentially make an honest recommendation only to turn around and unethically phone a competitor (Pepsi) to divulge secrets and land the account when they inevitably buy this sinking turd out. Again, too bad that was only a minute or so of the show when the rest is wasted being painfully not clever - like Clyde wrapping up his gag on the plane - but I'll take the glimmers when I can get them.
In a nice parallel with the first MetroCapital sequence, the closing scene with Skip plays up the coming conflicts at work and how they will challenge Marty not just as a consultant but as a person. As we saw in tonight's episode (even if poorly executed), Marty burns bridges and that's not good business when you're in the relationship business and it's definitely not good for your relationships. Skip adding trouble at work, the last place Marty was still seemingly in control, proved too much to handle and he calls up Clyde for a night on the town. They grab a few phone numbers at the bar and then Marty steals a car and goes comically suicidal. I think one of the biggest problems is the desire to do too much, too quickly. It's only been 3 thirty minute episodes and we already have ten or more recurring characters plus 3 or 4 guests each week. How else could they paint them all if not in broad strokes? And that's understandable for the procedural guest characters but trying to add depth to ten characters too soon just creates a cast of caricatures who are hard to care about.
If there was something positive to take away from this episode, it's that "Microphallus" almost feels like a second pilot. A lot of the better moments were spent planting seeds for the larger seasonal narrative for Marty, especially when it comes to the possible MetroCapital acquisition, the rivalry with Greg Norbert and the rocky relationship with Skip. However, these attempts are all for naught if the show (as a whole and within each particular episode) doesn't find a more consistent tone, some emotional weight and, well, a few laughs. I think I've said this three weeks running but House of Lies has potential but can it realize it before it's too late?
House of Lies airs Sundays at 10 p.m ET 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.