House of Lies: Season 1, Episode 1
The Gods of Dangerous Financial Instruments
The first rule of narration: The only time talking to the camera has ever worked, will ever work, was when it was done by Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Every other time it has ever been tried, it has come across as forced, awkward, and momentum-killing. Don Cheadle is a great actor, capable of showing depth and with deft comedic timing when he gets the chance to display it. Unfortunately, House of Lies doesn't give him much of an opportunity to display either of those things, at least not in its first outing. All that Don Cheadle gets to prove during "The Gods of Dangerous Financial Instruments" is that for the many things he is, he is no Ferris Bueller.
Every time the action stops to let Cheadle explain industry jargon that we all could have understood from the context if the show had the faith in its audience that it should, it just gives viewers time to ruminate on the many flaws. Like its tone deaf premise, which has Cheadle's management consulting company saving bankers from the wrath of the public in the face of the financial meltdown. Or his character, who is pretty much the exact same protagonist as you can find on dozens of other cable shows: a rich, amoral businessman who is the best at his job but has a mess of a personal life. Heard it before? Of course you have, and House of Lies doesn't offer much of a spin on it.
Additionally, the show seems like it isn't exactly sure whether it is a satire of over-the-top 1%-ers, or whether it wants to be lifestyle porn in the mold of Entourage, or just a silly little comedy that is using its frontman to give it a sheen of depth. Whichever of the above it is, its best foot is not put forward in this pilot.
Still, I always like to discuss the potential in a new show, as often times pilots bear very little resemblance to what the show will become once it finds its footing. House of Lies has a phenomenal cast, with Kristen Bell and Ben Schwartz (Jean Ralphio from Parks and Rec, who gets next to nothing to do in the pilot, but will presumably get increased screen time as the season progresses) backing up Cheadle. All of these people are funny, and even if the writing never catches up, its entirely possible that the cast will manage to elevate the material to make it something worth watching. And while this is a startlingly uneven half-hour of television, there are definitely laughs here. Perhaps the biggest laughs come from a subplot in which Cheadle's son, experimenting with gender roles and trying out to play Sandy in his school's rendition of Grease, yet Greg Germann's turn as a banking executive who is not nearly as in control of his life as he thinks was also funny, and an indication that this show can elicit laughs.
There are serious tonal problems here. I'm not exactly sure what type of show House of Lies wants to be, or how we are supposed to take its characters. Are we supposed to revel in the characters excess, look down on them for their flaws, or root for their redemption? If this show can figure out what it wants to be, it has enough going for it that it could become worth watching. Until then, however, I think I'll be avoiding it. It seems likely House of Lies will be bad for a good while, if it ever figures out how to get around its flaws and become worthwhile. If it does, I'll jump back on board, but until then, I'll go other, better places, for my gleeful amorality.
-"Sandy...the part immortalized by Olivia Newton John?"
-"Congratulations. That's one of the Pink Ladies, right?"
-She's a dead lay. Dead on arrival."
Tags: House of Lies