Showtime’s House of Lies has clearly been trying to work its kinks over the first five episodes and, in doing so has improved significantly. Is it a good show? Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Last week's "Mini-Mogul" used Roscoe, the show's sole likable character to humanize the entire otherwise unseemly ensemble while the writers continued to tone down a lot of the fourth wall breaking and other goofy trappings. This week’s trip to “Utah” was another step forward for the struggling show, although it's still a long road ahead.
"When in Rome, Bitches!"
The episode titles continue to confirm that, even if House of Lies is confused about its storytelling and whether it's a comedy or drama (it struggles equally with both), it's most definitely written with a procedural structure in mind. This week, you guessed it, the Galweather & Stearn team are headed to the Beehive State but first we're quickly refreshed on the possible MetroCapital takeover and how much Greg Norbert hates Marty Kaan. Oddly though, we are hearing all this from 'The Rainmaker' (Griffin Dunne) and not Skip Galweather who is conspicuously absent. I thought that the budding conflict between Skip and Marty could be interesting, especially since they were going to have to continue to work together but apparently that's not the case. Instead, they'll just bring in this Rainmaker guy - who loves Marty - to tell him about this week's gig in Utah, where they're all so goddamn friendly. Kind of a waste no?
Marty takes the StayRite Hotel case to the team and we start to get a sense of how the episode is going to break down. Marty and Jeannie will be taking the lead on the Utah deal, the former handling a new CFO flexing his muscles and the latter the conservative and slightly racist CEO, and they'll most likely have to come in and make some arbitrary and unnecessary decisions for the currently successful company. However, it's this aspect of the show, highlighting the corporate greed and unbelievable things that these executives will do for even a touch more money or power, that should be further (solely) explored but instead we have Doug and Clyde's bro-centric "technical virgin" storyline taking up a third of the episode. It is by far the weakest of the week and that's in an episode where Roscoe and his monstrous mother Monica spend a little time breaking and entering together. More on that later, but first back to the anal sex.
"Actual virgin or technical virgin?"
Oh, Clyde and Doug. It's really a shame that these two are given the worst material to work with since I genuinely like Doug Lawson and Ben Schwartz. The two are even developing some great chemistry in spite of the writing but when your entire storyline - not a joke an entire story - is based around the prospect and pitfalls of anal sex, well, you may not be able to make all the beads, sorry, beats work (see... not funny).
The scatological humor begins when Doug decides to return from the airport washroom with hands unwashed to join the team squeezing in some final shots before heading to the land where they don't drink or swear or have premarital sex. Well, some women who want to remain virgins opt for 'rear entry' (hence the actual or technical debate) or, at least that's what Doug says when he, Jeannie and Clyde discuss the Mormon marketing girl. Despite all his big talk and unexplainable ability to pick up girls, Clyde is scared away from the prospect by some possible poop. You see, corn is never really owned just borrowed.
"Disturbing, right. Maybe even a little grotesque, Huh? But there's still some beauty in there, isn't there?"
Since Marty's in Utah and Grandpa Jeremiah also has to leave town, Monica, the worst mother on the planet, plans to watch Roscoe. And by watching her son, she ends up taking him to break and enter into her married lover's house while he's away on the vacation he promised to take her on. Yeah, the worst on the planet and I'm pretty sure she only exists in order to make Marty seem like less of a shitty parent/person. Or at least make sure he's not the most monstrous person on his own show.
Monica ends up swiping an expensive painting and in the show's attempt at subtext, her and Roscoe discuss the work titled "Sheila" and the possibility that there might be something more hiding behind her nasty exterior. I'm not so sure since the sociopath stares at the painting and smokes for four hours straight as Roscoe sneaks in some sleep before for school. Yeah, you better call a cab buddy. When Marty returns home from treating Jeannie like crap and getting wasted with the CFO we don't hate him as much because, well, he's still better for Roscoe than his despicable mother. And Roscoe knows it now too. How nice?
"I know you came all the way out here for Daddy to give you an 'atta girl, cupcake' but Daddy ain't giving you that, cause this is shit."
The main story this week was easily the most compelling and it's probably no coincidence that it saw Kristen Bell's Jeannie taking the lead. It's unfortunate that in order for House of Lies to have one of its most successful storylines to date it was at the cost of relegating the main character to the sidelines. It kind of confirms something I've been suspecting for some time, that the main problem with the series may be the main character.
Marty is even more vile and villainous in "Utah" than in previous episodes because he puts as much pressure on Jeannie as possible then craps all over her work all while walking in to save the day with the convenient pieces of information he obtained while gallivanting with the not so Mormon CFO. Again, it's another case solved, sorry, more afterwork secured with blackmail which seems to be the only way that the show can resolve any of its consulting narratives (and Jeannie's hard work, although we and Marty barely notice).
However, at least "Utah" used the bribery as the two punch, in the one, two combination of Jeannie and Marty. And, to their credit, perhaps it's a bit unfair of me to assume that this isn't how the consultant business (ie. the show) is supposed to work - meaning that it's their job to simply investigate the people as much as the business and then leverage every piece of dirt (coincidentally the title of Matthew Carnahan's last show) they can find in order to get the job done.
This week, since the CEO at StayRite has a healthy case of racism - a joke that I though worked surprisingly well - Jeannie quarterbacks the case while, like I said, Marty parties with the CFO. Jeannie is stressing out because StayRite is in such great shape that it's going to be hard to convince them they need G&S but her suggestion of a brand-expansion, although crapped on by Marty (who gets to save the day 'from Calvin and his ass'), wins over the CEO and the team secures yet another big win on the road. Jeannie's success also allows her to rip into Marty on the plane ride home, another good scene and their relationship could be one of the better conflicts for the series from here on out. Add Jeannie to Skip and Norbert/MetroCaptial and Marty's more compelling problems are adding up.
"Utah" is a very different show than "Gods of Dangerous Financial Instruments" (the pilot) and yet, even though it's a lot better, it might not ever realize the potential that it has with the fantastic cast. The problem is that everyone on the series are not just horrible people but also unlikable characters. And that's a big difference. I think about the other show I recap, FX's hilarious animated comedy Archer and its ensemble of deplorable characters (that do and say nothing but deplorable things) but they still manage to be likable.
Archer himself is a terrible human being but I love him. And don't for second think that it is something exclusively achievable in the animated realm because the very live-action Arrested Development was the same way. The Bluths, even Michael, were not good people but I liked every single one of them. So the fact that the employees at Galweather & Stearn and the clients they handle are all, well, assholes wouldn't matter as much (or at all) if they were at least likable. Or if either the jokes or attempts at sentimentality didn't fail more often than succeed. The 'subtext' of the "Sheila" conversation perfectly describes what the show perhaps aspires to be but unfortunately for House of Lies beauty really is skin deep.
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.