House of Lies: Season One (US - DVD R1)
Jonathan checks out season one of the Showtime series starring Don Cheadle..
A scathing Corporate America-skewering comedy that examines the life of a self-loathing management consultant played by Academy Award and Emmy nominee Don Cheadle. While best known for taking down the competition with sex and a smile, he's capable of using any means (or anyone) to get what he wants. Kristen Bell stars as the foxy, sharp-tongued team leader juggling her career and personal life. (From the Showtime synopsis)
House of Lies feels like the modern, goofy cousin of AMC's successful Mad Men. The show features the same kind of characters who make a business of sleeping around, abusing substances, and using social engineering to convince company executives to buy their ideas. These interactions ring false when compared to the AMC show, but House of Lies is very much a comedy before all else. A lot of the humor in the show feels lazy. Rather than develop ongoing jokes, or basing the humor around the lead characters, the writers often result to raunchy scenarios and profanity. These cheap laughs sometimes work thanks to the cast members, but the routine gets old fast. I have to confess, watching the entire season in a day probably didn't help the writing stay fresh. A half-hour of dose of this every week would be much more palatable.
When the show stops to try and develop the characters lives, it never shifts tone very gracefully. There's often a forceful musical cue or Cheadle giving a serious look directly into the camera to let you know the stakes are getting high. One gimmick that the show uses in obnoxious excess is a freeze frame effect where everyone in a scene stops moving except Don Cheadle. He then walks around talking to the camera and explaining the situation in pedestrian terms. It becomes less frequent as the season progresses, but be ready for the pilot to do it every chance it gets. The show seems bent on channeling the same kind of cynical charm that Jason Reitman pulled off in his directorial debut, Thank You For Smoking, but it just isn't clever enough to make it work. The unfortunate result is that none of the characters are easy to like, so when drama takes precedence over humor I have a very hard time caring about what is happening. Characters also make some unbelievable mood swings out of left field to drive the story into more dramatic territory. The tonal shifts are jarring and ineffective.
The show is kept watchable by its talented leads. You might not know it from his serious work, but Don Cheadle is really funny. His delivery can make some uninspired lines a riot. I'd seen some of his comedy work on Funny or Die and the wonderful film The Guard, but he really gets the chance to shine as the leading man here. Kristen Bell is one of those actresses that I like, but I never seem to like the movies or shows that she is in. She's good here, but her character suffers from the same unlikable qualities as the other leads. Ben Schwartz is a funny guy on the podcast Comedy Bang Bang, and the book 'Breaking Bad News with Baby Animals', which he co-authored, is hysterical. Here he is playing a dialed down version of his Jean-Ralphio character from Parks and Recreation. He gets some funny moments, but his and Josh Lawson's characters are really only there for additional banter. The overarching story never gets them involved, leaving a lot of room to build on these characters in season two.
With six 30-minute episodes and some special features on each disc, this standard definition release of season one comes with a good share of compression footprints. Oddly, some episodes look better than others and live up to the standard of other television releases on DVD. But some episodes so major problems like heavy pixelation on moving objects and interlacing effects. There is some strange strobing that is noticeable in early episodes, and I even noticed a few instances of combing. Even when I revisited the first couple episodes to take screen caps in VLC, I could see the effect with my deinterlace option turned on. It doesn't make the video unwatchable, but it feels like it could've been avoided. The resulting picture quality is somewhere close to what I'd expect in a 480 YouTube video. The show was shot digitally on the Arri Alexa, which is a mighty fine camera. In the episodes where the compression feels less harsh, the image does look nice and clean. With a little more consistency and a third disc to store content on, this could've been a great-looking DVD release.
The audio doesn't suffer from the same maddening inconsistencies as the video. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix spreads the audio around the room nicely. Whether the cast is on the sidewalk of a busy street, a busy meeting room or a club, there's background noise making good use of the sound scape. Though the noise is spread around, there isn't much dynamic range to it. Various sounds all blend into one another, which is likely the result of compression. Again, this is something that could've been improved if the episodes were spread out on more than two discs, but it isn't likely to bother many. Years ago I may not have even noticed such a thing, but I have been spoiled with the lossless formats on Blu-ray releases. The show focuses on characters who run their mouth, and every line of dialogue is perfectly discernible from the center channel. Volume levels remain consistent. I never had to adjust them, even when a scene transitions from a quiet office meeting to a noisy event. This track gets the important things right, but there is room for improvement.
There are two Audio Commentaries. I had to go to the audio set up menu to find the commentary option, as they don't show up on the episode selection screen or the special features section. The first is for the pilot episode: "The Gods of Dangerous Financial Instruments". It's a group commentary track with Don Cheadle, Josh Lawson, Ben Schwartz, writer Matthew Carnahan and Executive Producer Jessika Borsiczky. If its insight you want, you won't find it here. This is very much a goofy free-for-all between the cast and crew. There are a lot of jokes about how things in the show were Don Cheadle's idea. They jest about the camera man being drunk, poke fun at wardrobe decisions, and even insert fart noises in scenes during serious moments. As someone who personally doesn't care how this show was made, I found the track refreshing and funny. The cast clearly has a great time working with each other, and I wish there were more commentary tracks on this DVD set. The commentary track on the last episode is more of the same goofing around, without the presence of Cheadle.
On the second disc there are text biographies, a photo gallery, something called 'Win a Trip' that I did not bother clicking on and then four interview featurettes. The first two, Hanging with Don Cheadle (3:29) and Hanging with Kristen Bell (2:39) are enjoyable little interviews with the cast. Cheadle talks about his acting background, including his nomination for Hotel Rwanda. He briefly touches on House of Lies and how he thought the character would be fun to play, but its really a footnote on the interview. Bell does the same thing in her interview, talking about her childhood and theater work she took part in at a young age. The cast members are much more fun to spend time with than their characters in the show. Marty Kaan Profile (2:19) is a brief, commercial-like look at Don Cheadle's character in the show, giving an introductory look at his world and personality. Lastly is The Rainmaker (2:30), which is a similar featurette for Griffin Dunne's character.
Pulling off a combination of cynicism and charm is a difficult balancing act, and House of Lies doesn't quite pull it off. Despite a talented cast led by Don Cheadle, I found the characters unlikable and the constant juvenile humor repellent. I'm sure there is a great series to be made somewhere inside the consulting world represented in House of Lies, but this isn't it. The AV presentation on this release is a letdown, likely due to the decision to cram six episodes and special features onto each disc. The extras are mostly fluff, but there are a couple of fun commentaries with the cast and crew that I would've liked to hear more of.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Release Date: 18th December 2012
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Spanish
Extras: Commentary on Select Episodes, Hanging with Kristen Bell, Hanging with Don Cheadle, Rainmaker, Marty Kaan Profile
Easter Egg: No
Cast: Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz
Length: 347 minutes
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