TBTS Reviews: House of Lies, Season 1 — Boning, Betraying, and Business
In the Season 1 finale of House of Lies, in a context that I’ll leave unrevealed here, Jeannie Van Der Hooven (Kristen Bell) offers some back-handed, embarrassing “praise” to one of her colleagues at management consulting firm Galweather & Stearn.
So, dude, mad props for all of this boning and betraying, while still managing to do quite a bit of business.
This thinly veiled condemnation points to a formula that seems to govern the world of House of Lies and the behavior of those who populate it. Simply stated, consulting (business) = sex (boning) + lies (betraying). Basically, in this world, everything you do is about screwing somebody, screwing somebody over, and doing both simultaneously whenever possible.
In terms of sex, in Season 1, we observe several dozen sexual escapades and virtually constant sexual tensions and preoccupations among and within nearly all major characters. The actual business that’s done is often intermingled with persuasive and/or transactional enticement into sexual activity. Revenge for wrongs committed in the boardroom is sought through transgressions in the bedroom (or bathroom!) and vice versa. Even when there’s no direct physicality, the selling of the consulting services is strikingly similar to seduction, done with artfulness, brute force, or a bit of both.
And we can’t forget about the lies, equally integral to the way business is done on House of Lies (after all, lying is in the title). The show tells us that every consultant’s primary task is not to improve a client’s business, but rather to convince the client to sign on for more of the consultant’s time and services, so-called “afterwork” following the initial consultation. Any actual benefit to the client along the way is incidental. The consultants’ approach to this process of persuasion, or “seduction” as mentioned above, is completely amoral and done with no regard to truth or reality. Telling the truth is just another “play” that’s available when it suits the needs of the moment. Far more often, lies are told — joyfully, casually, as natural as breathing.
But I don’t wish to go too far down this path of making House of Lies sound like scathing, indignant social commentary above all else. The consulting culture and corporate-dominated economy depicted on the show are unsavory even at their best moments. The critiques are occasionally harsh. But House of Lies always stops short of full-on socioeconomic righteousness (such as that seen on The Wire, for example), primarily through the tendency to lean back toward positive regard for, and portrayals of, the sales team (or “pod”) at the show’s center. That may leave some viewers thinking that House of Lies lacks a spine, but I see it mostly as a strength, in that the show’s central emphasis is on round characters, not rigid commentary. For example, pod leader Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle) is a ruthless bastard, a charming creative dynamo, a sexed-up human ramrod, a loving father, and a too-frequent absentee father. Said another way, I find him to be fully human, and for me the show succeeds because I care about Marty’s struggle, and his failings sting because the show has convinced me of his capacity for growth and redemption. I would say the same about Jeannie, played by Kristen Bell. She’s clearly only slightly a second fiddle to Marty, both in the show’s business universe itself and in terms of who receives the most attention from the show’s storytellers. It’s no surprise given the stellar work they’ve been doing for years, but Cheadle and Bell are both a joy to watch.
Finally, probably the biggest reason why I enjoyed Season 1 as much as I did, leaving aside all the analytical stuff, is that this show is howlingly funny. Cheadle carries a lot of the comic weight simply through the huge amount of screen time he occupies. However, Clyde Oberholt (played by Ben Schwartz) and Doug Guggenheim (played by Josh Lawson) the other two members of Marty’s pod, must be mentioned here, as they’re clearly meant to serve primarily as a farcical (and horny) court jester duo without much depth otherwise. Perhaps that character development is forthcoming in Season 2 and beyond, but even if not, I’ll be satisfied as long as the high standard for buffoonery that Clyde and Doug set in Season 1 continues to be met. I must note here that Ben Schwartz captured my heart as the cosmically stupid pseudo-balla Jean-Ralphio Saperstein on Parks and Recreation, and it’s staggeringly gratifying to see him get more screen time, and deliver so much stellar comedy, on House of Lies. Gratifying, that is, as long as there’s room in his schedule and his contract for an occasional return trip to Pawnee as Jean-Ralphio.
So, my final verdict on House of Lies, Season 1, is a mostly unreserved recommendation. It’s not the deepest, most thought-provoking entertainment you’ll ever encounter, but the show is blazingly funny, well written and largely well acted, and populated by several thoughtfully drawn characters with plenty of potential for even greater depth and development in Season 2 and beyond. Check out this fine little show — I think you’ll have fun with it.