'House of Lies' and Mainstream Pornography

I caught House of Lies at the barbershop the other day, and was disappointed. I'm pretty much a fan of the entire cast--especially Ben Schwartz and (obviously) Don Cheadle.

Ken Tucker captures much of what I was thinking:

Most of the time, House of Lies plays like one of those glossy, empty USA Network shows like White Collar or Psych, but with a butt-load of the sort of sexual activity one can get away with on pay-cable. That means both ends of this creature, so to speak, aren't all that interesting. People talk fast on Psych because the folks making it think you'll mistake that for snappy patter; people have grunting quickies in semi-public places on cable TV because they think it'll turn us on. But there's no novelty or freshness in House of Lies' patter or its penis-placement. 

The show's crucial weakness is its dead language: The lines have no comic lilt; no exchange between any two characters gives off sparks. When you have an actor with a tongue as adroit as Cheadle, this seems nearly cruel. The sex is brutish and quick, laced with hostility -- orgasm as inflicted punishment. In the second episode, the promise of lively flirtation is proffered the moment the bright-eyed Cat Deeley shows up in an airport cameo. But the show's writers use her the way they use everyone else here -- Deeley ends up looking foolish for being friendly to one of Cheadle's team, even having to stoop to mop up coffee spilled on a man's crotch. (Coffee she didn't even spill herself.) 

Lies attempts to make Cheadle's Marty Kaan a vivid character in two ways, only one of which works. The best thing about Marty is that he's one of the few black characters on TV who acknowledges there's racism all around him, that he can sometimes play that pernicious situation to your advantage, but most of the time, he's alternately stoic, angry, or hurt -- and Cheadle makes every one of these reactions believable. Less believable is the family life for Marty that's been created by the series to soften, to humanize this wheeling-dealing machine of a man. He lives with his father (a fine Glynn Turman) and his son, Roscoe (Donis Leonard, Jr.), who likes to cross-dress in public. 

We're meant to think that Marty is a great dad for defending his young son's emerging, or conflicted, or whatever it is all prepubescent kids go through, sexuality against the criticisms of his ex-wife and school officials. The two sides of Marty don't mesh: The impatient shark during the working day doesn't seem likely to be able to chill out so completely when he deigns to do a little parenting. This compartmentalizing makes sense -- hardworking people do it all the time -- but, again, the dialogue that accompanies this simply makes Marty seem a little schizo, rather than the torn, man in pain he's probably meant to be.

I want to double down on a couple of points. I thought the initial handling of Marty's son's sexuality was really hamfisted. It felt like something you stick in a show to be edgy, cool, or "complex." But serious writing will always trump thin identity. Omar (from the Wire) is a great gay character--but mostly because the writer's take the whole of him seriously--including the gay parts.  What I mean is that they don't play it down. They don't ignore his sexuality. On contrary, Omar being gay has actual importance to the plot. They recognize the truth of it, and they keep writing. "Gay stick-up kid" is interesting--but not if you stop there.

Perhaps I am asking too much--it's not like most narrative takes the lives of heterosexuals seriously, either. Perhaps we want a world where thin writing is doled out to all sectors. I don't know.

Tucker also notes that much of the sex in House is meant to "turn us on." Indeed, the show felt to me like a kind of respectable, mass-market pornography. The narrative to sex ratio is, admittedly, lower in House than in most porn flicks. But the spirit of pornography, in which story exists to get us to sex, hovers about. The show certainly qualifies as "adult entertainment."

On a personal note, all of this was made more interesting because I was at the barber with my son. We are a liberal house. We have always talked about sex. We have made it a point to urge responsibility, while not making sex taboo. The whole point is to avoid having "The Talk" in favor of a constant conversation. Moreover, we've tried to be realistic about what the boy does and sees, when he's not under our survey.

I thought about asking the barber to cut the show off. But for some reason, that felt wrong--rude, almost. I also didn't know how bad (on all counts) the show would be. So I fell back on the golden rule--communication. On the walk to the train, and during the ride home we had a good conversation about art and depictions of sex. He's a smart kid. I hope it was the right thing. Parenting is just one long improv sketch.