House of Lies Review: "Amsterdam" (Episode 1.02)

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<em>House of Lies</em> Review: "Amsterdam" (Episode 1.02)

I still feel dirty from last week’s House of Lies. Beyond the gratuitous nudity and sit-com coincidences, the biggest problem with the pilot was its immense self-satisfaction. I’m sure nobody without confidence has ever sold a show to a network, but even with a great cast and a timely hook that first episode felt overly proud of itself. Maybe it’s an intentional reflection of how vital image is to the show’s obscenely expensive management consultants, but the pilot was insufferably smug. This slightly more relaxed second episode is an improvement, but for a show with such a charismatic cast, House of Lies is still surprisingly unlikable.

“Amsterdam” starts with a scene as annoying as anything from the pilot. Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle) rattles off a trite spiel to an easily convinced (and remarkably sweaty) corporate dullard over lunch. Somehow Marty’s generic pitch wins the client over, and to celebrate, Marty basically rapes his ex-wife in the bathroom.

Yep, that’s played for laughs. Monica (Dawn Olivieri) is at the same restaurant and the two wind up in a bathroom quickie. They can’t agree over a safe word and after Monica repeatedly asks Marty to stop they wind up strangling each other. This is at least as crass and cynical as the lesbian hook-up in episode one, but with that little tiny bit of rape tossed in for extra discomfort. Apparently in the world of House of Lies, restaurant bathrooms only exist for people to publicly have loud and rough sex without any fear of being walked in on.

This opener is self-evidently awful, but it also does a massive disservice to what is otherwise an improvement over the pilot. “Amsterdam” is in no way a great piece of work, but it’s lighter than last week’s ultra-cynical foreclosure fest and provides its talented cast ample room for entertaining interaction.

The plot involves a wealthy NBA team-owner and the divorce that threatens to destroy his team. It’s basically like the McCourt divorce drama as interpreted by Arli$$, if Arli$$ somehow survived into 2012 and replaced Robert Wuhl with Don Cheadle somewhere along the way.

This episode introduces recurring guest stars Richard Schiff as Skip Galweather, one of the firm’s partners, and Griffin Dunne as Galweather Stearn’s rainmaker, who doesn’t just bring in business but is also apparently the only person who can break Marty’s time-altering powers. (Thankfully those annoying freeze-frames are far less common this week than last.) Schiff and Dunne are two more likeable presences in a show full of them, and in their one shared scene they come off much better than the regulars.

So the team heads to Phoenix. In the airport they run into Cat Deeley, who is apparently somebody I should have heard of. Doug (Josh Lawson), the bland, bespectacled Harvard grad on Marty’s team, engages in some extremely awkward flirting with Deeley, and winds up with an unintentional over-the-pants handjob after spilling coffee all over his pants. Doug’s unease around Deeley has little to do with the plot, but it’s one of the show’s funnier moments so far and leads to some fine ribbing from Clyde (Ben Schwartz).

Also in the airport, Jeannie gets a call from an ex-boyfriend. They make dinner plans in Phoenix, and Jeannie thinks it’s a date. The ex is actually a head-hunter recruiting her for a job on an equal level as her current position but with twice the pay. Before she can accept, the offer is withdrawn, and Jeannie assumes Marty killed it to keep her on the team. She’s not angry, though, and appears happy that Marty would go to that length to keep her.

We’ve seen Marty and Jeannie’s camaraderie and playful spar-flirting, but this is a world where money trumps all, and it’s incongruous to see a character glad that they can’t take a higher paying job. Of course this is a detail that might be rendered moot if future episodes better define Marty and Jeannie’s relationship, and Jeannie seemed conflicted all along about what decision was better for her career. We don’t know any of these characters well enough yet to care about a decision like this, though, and what we do know largely makes us hate them, so the drama in this situation is lost on me.

The middle of “Amsterdam” is taken up by a monologue from Clyde about how he’d win over Cat Deeley. The team mocks Doug and his colossal failure, but Clyde’s pickup pitch is as embarrassing as any advice ever given by Mystery). Clyde’s transparently bullshit-riddled pitch is an overdose of Jean-Ralphio style cheese, and yet his coworkers react like it’s a sure-fire come-on. Perhaps they’re sarcastically mocking Clyde, but the oddly paced scene ends without indication of that. It’s a funny scene, but one of this week’s more obvious examples of the smugness that cripples House of Lies.

After discovering the owner’s $100 million off-shore retirement and overselling the threat of David Stern and the NBA seizing all team assets, the team convinces the couple to publicly stay together in a sham marriage to keep the company standing. It’s an easy out to a storyline that’s more a framework for character interaction than about the job itself.

Like the pilot, the best part is Marty’s relationship with his cross-dressing son, Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.). Teachers and other students’ parents think Roscoe’s wardrobe is a classroom distraction, and Marty’s angry reaction reinforces that he’s only likable when he’s yelling at his son’s principal over the phone.

“Amsterdam” winds down with Marty and Roscoe relaxing over a game of Halo. Roscoe plays on Marty’s fears of his son being bullied in order to get the upper hand in the game. It’s the closest this show gets to understated, and yet the word “fudgepacker” figures prominently. Still, Marty’s home life remains the only part of the show that is genuinely interesting so far. It ends ambiguously, with Roscoe self-contentedly walking away without answering Marty’s questions about whether kids call him names at school. Of course Roscoe has definitely heard “fudgepacker” (and far worse) on Xbox Live.

Perhaps House of Lies will continue to improve as episodes like “Amsterdam” develop the relationships between Marty and his co-workers. The banter isn’t always strong but as I’ve said repeatedly the actors are all charismatic and work well with one another. Even when they’re horrible to each other or not acting like recognizable people, the four main actors have already fallen into a nice rhythm. Their scenes can be an occasionally funny respite from the show’s cloying and overcooked sex and cynicism. Of course that self-satisfied and cartoonish tone might be a reflection of how the characters sell themselves to their clients, but even if it makes sense within the show it’s still insufferable.