House of Lies, Californication, and the Tragic Flaw of the Alpha-Male

January 16, 2012

Last week, I saw the season premiere of Californication, along with the very popular premiere of Showtime’s new House of Lies, starring Don Cheadle. I’ve been a “Hank Moody” fan for the past four seasons, so I was already looking forward toward the new season, but I caught on to House of Lies out of mere curiosity, not knowing too much about it beforehand.

I suppose I’ll leave a full-on review on either of these two series till their respective finales, but as I watched the second episodes of each of these shows, it got me to thinking.

House of Lies is built on a very cynical premise, involving “management consultants” who will do whatever it takes to con a business out of its money. I mean, I’ve never really had a good perception of consultants as it is, but this show takes everything to the next proverbial level.

As dark and cynical of a comedy as it is, it still seems like something is a little off in the execution (I tend to like dark comedies). It’s hard to feel sympathetic toward any of the characters, even though the casting is quite superb.

What bugs me most, though, is that the show seems to be a slightly more irreverent, cynical, vulgar, and excessive representation of what Californication has been doing all along for the past four seasons.

OK, it’s not entirely a carbon copy. I can see good reason as to why the two shows can coexist. But it does seem like they both have the same working thesis.

Namely: Take a self-assured, confident, volatile and seemingly insensitive man; pit him as a person who is able to get what he wants, when he wants (at least most of the time). Then, slowly start showing the cracks through what may have seemed like an impermeable membrane covering his supposedly sensitive soul. And throw in a relationship with a son/daughter in order to gain a bit of pathos.

Mind you, I thought Californication did this to excellent effect in its first two seasons. The relationship between Moody and his daughter Becca was one of the most frustrating, heartbreaking, but ultimately cathartic motifs of the show. It made Moody seem, strangely, like a bully and a victim all at once.

His excesses were something that I may have envied vicariously, but only with a little bit of self-loathing (Moody is a kind-hearted jerk). In the end, though, his tale served as a bit of a cautionary tale, and as such, the plot became a vehicle for the dark humor in a hypothetical — if not hyperbolic — universe of tragic predicaments.

Now into the fifth season, a lot has changed. The question one has going into this season is: How will Hank fuck it all up again?

The season premiere was almost a caricature of itself. Some absurdities and coincidences were put in place in order to move along the story for the rest of the season, introducing us to some old faces and some new. (I do love the inclusion of Stephen Tobolowsky, a carry-over from last season. I’ve always liked him as a character actor, and I enjoy his character in the show. Not too sure how I feel about the RZA.)

Californication is showing its age, though. If anything, there seems to be a return of Hank and Becca (played affectionately by Madeleine Martin), a relationship that still, through it all, happens to bring a small amount of interest in this here viewer. Everything else is moot. But “enjoyable moot” nonetheless.

Enter House of Lies. How can Don Cheadle’s Marty Kaan (really, his last name is a homophone for “con”?) avoid the same mistakes made by Hank Moody? My guess is that he won’t.

He will continue to be a self-absorbed prick, willing to live according to his warped sense of morals, until it comes at odds with his more meaningful relationships. That is, the relationship with his cross-dressing son.

I’m willing to look past the similarities if somehow House of Lies is able to make its own identity and follow its own path. But right now, Marty Kaan is not nearly as likable as Hank Moody, which means he is far less forgivable.

As a member of the XY heterogametic sex and open identifier of the masculine gender, I see why either of these shows might appeal to me, at least in the almost id-like qualities of its protagonists, perhaps showing what an almost unrestrained life might be like without the benefits bestowed by my great friend the superego.

But I suppose what makes these shows work for me is that, ultimately, I know everything will fall apart. I know that the characters will lose control, and that a poignant tragedy will unfold. Californication has done that consistently since that woeful conclusion to season 2.

There is a cathartic reality in seeing these kind of men fail. Because we know better, or we should know better, and if they were to succeed, we’d probably feel a little ripped off.

I don’t know if that conclusion is enough to make me enjoy either of these two shows for the remainder of their seasons, but I guess I’ll give it a try. I’ll let you know how it goes on the other side.

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