Showtime’s House of Lies is getting closer to being a show I could actually call not terrible. Unfortunately, at the moment, it's still wildly inconsistent, consisting of moments that we could call the good, the bad and the awful. The second episode, "Amsterdam," was immeasurably better than the premiere but unfortunately that trend did not continue in week three with “Microphallus.” The episode was a serious step back in quality and yet offered glimmers of hope for this week's “Mini-Mogul.” I think I used the words 'second pilot' and this followup made me believe those words even more.
"So, next thing you know, you're taking him to work with you. And there it is, case solved. Shit."
One of the bright spots of this week's episode was the relationship work and time spent with Roscoe. Allowing him to appear in a few extended sequences made him feel like more than just a network gimmick and his presence also managed to humanize the other, often inhuman characters. The episode opened with a Strangers on a Train-like close up on bustling feet, revealing two very different pairs of footwear - Roscoe's boots and Marty's shoes. This is where Marty lays 'The Case' on us and this is not only one of the episode's very few asides (hurray!) but also one that actually contributes to the entire narrative. These character's entire existence is about the case, and that's how they see their personal lives too, as extensions of the job and a case to be solved. And this week, a major part of the case, for Marty at least, is Roscoe.
While both Gramps and Roscoe's mom are off fornicating in some remote locale (a nice way to flash some quick T&A), the Kaan boys are headed to Frisco with the Team. This fish out of water narrative is a good use of the little Kaan because the trouble at school, or should I say continuing trouble at school seems to be the only real conflict they can drum up for Roscoe. That's still one of his central conflicts but with more time to explore it, it had its moments and I particularly liked his sequence with Doug. Then again, I like almost everything with Doug because, aside from Roscoe, he's easily the most likable character on the show.
First though, since it is bring your son to work week, Roscoe asks what exactly consultants do and Marty dances around the question, bringing it back to 'the case' and w.a.g.s (wild ass guesses). While the team discusses the case, Roscoe let's a few secrets about Marty slip - his troubles with Jenny Craig and his lovely new bracelet - and again, these benefit the whole show, humanizing our despicable lead and his crew of despicable bullshitters.
When Marty returns to the hotel he finds leftovers and a note from his son who is clearly better than he or his nasty ex-wife deserve. The phone calls/voice mails to let her know this works well until, when in typical House of Lies, is has to progress to the point of being way too in your face obvious and/or blunt in it' delivery - from the on the nose dialogue (the way too convenient "not available" answering machine outgoing message) to the final look in the mirror. Still, the boys makes is back at the Kaans and Marty even gets Roscoe to open up about his problems at school. He also apologizes that he didn't get to spend more time with him during the trip but since the no time the spent together was still better than leaving him behind, Roscoe was more than satisfied and let his dad off the hook. Best. Week. Ever. Well, that's just sad.
"You are the batteries in the great big dildo that is fucking this country in the ass."
The procedural aspect of "Mini-Mogul," the reason for the trip to Frisco (I keep saying that because I know I'm not cool) is to mediate a dispute between the board of a huge software company and its young, genius founder. The board is trying to muscle the young Alex out but before we can get his corporate shenanigans, and the all too convenient way this thread of the narrative unfolds, we first have to deal with the Galweather & Stearn ones.
Clyde and Doug are up to their usual comic relief, meaning they do their best to elevate the not always funny material and try to make it funny. For the most part they succeed because Ben Scwartz and Josh Lawson are a joy to watch, even if they are discussing something as stupid as their hook-up points and banging "everything with a giny." I did like how Jeannie asked for a copy of the flight attendant video. She is a mysterious and interesting cookie - or still was at this point of the episode. When the team actually arrives at the software developer it's painfully obvious that the client, as has been the case week by week, will once again be a caricature or stereotypical portrait of the position they hold. Exactly what you'd expect. How exciting.
Alex, the Ninja, is a computer superstar who's pretending to be anti-establishment while raking in as much money and trying to score with as many chicks as, well, the team at Galweather & Stearn. Besides the moments we get to spend with Clyde and Doug ("is that a dog with a d.a.w.g.?" or "What would Clooney do?"), the procedural narrative is incredibly lazy and uses a convenient blackmail solution that may become the staple of the series since this marks the second time in 4 episodes it has been used (and they tried and failed to use it last week).
The same way that G&S found the hidden hundred million in "Amsterdam," Marty uncovers Alex's dirty secret - a backdoor in his security software - and uses the fraud to ensure that they not only get to hand the board what they want but also convince the kid to keep them around for the afterwork. The scene when the actually string Alex along is quite entertaining thanks to the cast, each chipping in at the right moment with the right quip, but that doesn't make the solution any more satisfying.
"Now that would be cliché."
Did it actually say that out loud? And during the most cliché thread of the episode? Yikes. For weeks I have been hoping that House of Lies would devote more of its time to Kristen Bell's Jeannie. After tonight, I understand why people say be careful what you wish for. In the least subtle narrative thread of the show, we open with Jeannie suddenly engaged and debating whether or not to throw a party in its honour. Now, I'm not sure about you but doesn't this surprise engagement feel a little inconsistent with her sadness during the headhunter misunderstanding in "Amsterdam?" Did that episode not make it clear that she was painfully single? I guess not, she's just in a painfully boring relationship, one so boring that it takes a guy only twenty minutes and some sex to completely and correctly break down her entire psychology. Well, thanks for that because now we don't have to try and piece her character together over the rest of the season, instead they'll just tell us.
How many times did we hear "daddy issues" uttered aloud? We get it, the whole show is structured around flawed paternal relationships - the three male Kaans, Jeannie's past, the team even calls Marty daddy - that you don't need the sledgehammer to bring it home. Try a little subtlety for a change and maybe watching Kristen Bell for a third of an episode would be as rewarding as it should be (instead of dreadfully obvious, on the nose and the worst part of the show... except the dance, which was wow). And what's up with the ending? Jeannie is breaking the fourth wall now too? WTF? I guess that cements that this will really be a co-lead show but when one character speaking to the camera is frustrating, adding another does not bode well.
It wasn't all bad. I do like the set-ups for future conflicts, like her hidden relationship as well as her duplicitous nature (similar to Marty) where she doesn't see her work and home life as one and the same. This is again why I feel like the show is starting over and how, if I were to judge this as a second episode, I probably wouldn't be so harsh. However this is not the second, it is the fourth.
The series needs to realize that often, less is more and that allowing us to gradually learn things about our characters will provide much more interesting and believable layers than simply blurting out their issues or having them wear them on their sleeves. Oh, and "Microphallus" and now the "Mini-Mogul"... is this show only about making small dick jokes? Or is the show itself a small dick joke? I'll admit that most of the time it feels that way. All the flash and the amazing cast, it certainly feels like House of Lies is overcompensating for something. Perhaps a lack of depth, emotional value and any understanding of subtext. Cause it's certainly skin deep in that department, among many, many others. We'll see what happens for the team next week in "Utah" and despite all the vast improvements, the show is losing the battle and fast. House of Lies has come a long way in four episodes but it's painfully obvious that it is still desperate searching for itself and sadly, still has a long way to go.
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.