As the first season of "House of Lies" wrapped up, the sexual tension between co-workers Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle) and Jeannie Van Der Hooven (Kristen Bell) was reaching a fever pitch. Marty has just successfully convinced Jeannie to announce intent to file a class sexual harassment lawsuit in order to torpedo a catastrophic merger involving their management consulting firm, Galweather-Stern. As a result, Marty, Jeannie, and their other two "pod" members Clyde Oberholt (Ben Schwartz) and Doug Guggenheim (Josh Lawson) find themselves working for a new boss, Julianne Hotschragar (Bess Armstrong), and with one of Marty's old college friends, Monica (Nia Long). While Monica and Marty reacquaint themselves with one another, Julianne puts the pressure on them to behave a little more like a normal, professional company...something that doesn't mesh well with Marty's usual bridge-burning tactics.
For the purposes of this review, I marathoned both seasons of "House of Lies" in three days. Those who have already seen the first season will be aware, but "Lies" feels like the "Entourage" of management consulting shows -- scene after scene of either debauchery or double-talk. At its worst, "Lies" can come off as self-satisfied, a smug show that either mocks or outlines fairly easy targets. It's crude, somewhat sexist, faintly mean-spirited, and plays all of it for laughs. This season's prime example: an entire episode built around a celebrity cameo (which I won't spoil) that's basically one long softball joke at the expense of nobody in particular that spends half of its running time patting itself on the back for being clever and witty. There's also "Man-Date", featuring the Dushkin brothers (Evan and Taylor Hart) as clients, two assholes the show pokes fun at while somehow simultaneously ignoring and slyly agreeing the show's protagonists are just as awful.
That aside, this second season does offer some improvements over the first season, mostly by developing the relationships between the characters and offering more complex challenges for them. The first, of course, is the unresolved details of what went down after the first season finale between Marty and Jeannie, which, conveniently, neither character is able to remember. The simple answer would be that the pair had a one-night stand, but the writers up the ante with a far more intimate and troubling memory for Jeannie to chew over once it comes back to her. Although Marty is generally busy with some other catastrophe that's commanding his attention, and both characters are off on individual sexual misadventures, Jeannie's memory remains a clever ticking time bomb throughout the season.
The other ongoing thread is Marty's growing anxiousness to move onto the next stage of his career. Early in the season, Marty starts to think that maybe he'd be better off starting his own firm, and his increasingly divided loyalty to Galweather-Stern and himself provides a nice level of political complication. The show slowly ditches some of the Season One tropes -- unnecessary explanation of business terms and strategies, "client of the week" storylines -- and replaces them with a more fluid, ongoing story involving two casino moguls (Kevin Dobson and Mather Zickel) battling for control over the Vegas strip. The more obstacles there are for Marty, the more interesting "House of Lies" becomes, and he inherits these puzzles on top of his ongoing problems with his ex-wife Monica (Dawn Olivieri), his son Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.), and his father Jeremiah (Glynn Turman), as well as the introduction of his brother Malcolm (Larenz Tate), an activist who harbors a chip on his shoulder about Marty.
Comedies about smooth operators are a dime a dozen. Comedies about people stuck in a rut are even cheaper. During moments of this second season, "House of Lies" starts to peel back the superficial light-and-dark divide between the characters' fast-talking professional lives and train-wreck personal lives, discovering a gray area that's much more compelling. The season's best moments all arrive when Marty says or does something that genuinely can't be undone or maneuvered around, when the stress of constantly having all the answers starts to wear him down. The season's most complex episode, "The Runner Stumbles", finds Marty forced to choose between losing a client and backing a cause that actually crosses one of the few morality lines in his entire body. Lying is just what the show is about on the surface; for a moment there, Marty (a character so simplistic, the writers literally named him "Kaan") -- and the show -- encounters truth.
TV advertisements tend to be a little arty, and that's what we get here, a promo photo of the cast with fire burning holes in their pockets. On the back, the cast stands out on the ledge of a building, for some reason. The case, which features the same artwork, is slid into a glossy cardboard slipcover with the same artwork on it, and episode listings show through on the reverse of the paper artwork, on the inside of the transparent eco-friendly 2-disc Amaray case.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, "House of Lies" looks and sounds as good as can be expected. Sometimes the cinematography looks a little digital, and the DVDs reflect that appearance, and some sequences are stylized so that highlights are blown out or colors bloom, but for the most part, color, detail, and contrast all look the way they're meant to look. Dark scenes (often in nightclubs) can appear a little mushy, but no obvious instances of artifacting caught my eye. Banding is occasionally visible on out-of-focus foreground objects and during fade-to-black moments. Sound design makes use of the rear channels in similar environments -- plenty of rowdy party scenes -- and the music is nicely balanced, although there's a customary simplicity to the overall feel of the series. It's kind of slick, much like the characters themselves. Sadly, unlike the first season, which had disc-based subtitles, Season Two only supports closed captioning, for those whose televisions offer this feature.
The only extra on this set are two audio commentaries by Don Cheadle, Ben Schwartz, and brothers Taylor and Evan Hart (on "Man-Date" and "Hostile Takeover". These are loose, friendly tracks that mostly offer banter (I like Cheadle's plan for Clyde in the upcoming season) and on-set anecdotes about the other actors and their comments on details of each episode, but there is some actual behind-the-scenes information to be gleaned, and either way, they're a pretty easy listen.
A promo for Showtime plays before the main menu on Disc 1.
On one hand, I'm new to "House of Lies", and I'm not entirely convinced I like it, so my reaction to Season 2 is going to be a little more unfavorable than an existing fan's. That said, Season 2 is definitely an improvement on the fairly formulaic Season 1, straying from a rigid, repetitive structure and finding some real dramatic footing. This DVD looks and sounds nice, but it offers minimal bonus content. Rent it.
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