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TV Weekend: Scenes from the Class Struggle, with Downton Abbey and House of Lies

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Nick Briggs / ITV for MASTERPIECE

The Crawleys meet the war head on.

The Occupy Wall Street movement did not give advance notice to network-TV development executives. So it was probably coincidence, or the work of the zeitgeist, that put on the air this fall shows like Revenge and 2 Broke Girls, which each in their escapist ways looked at the differences between haves and have-nots.

Arguably, though, the first TV show of the Occupy era debuted last winter: Downton Abbey, the British master-and-servant drama of the early 20th century, which returns Sunday for a second season on PBS, having already aired in Britain. (Also on BBC America and Logo Sunday, for fans of the undeserving British rich, a new Absolutely Fabulous special, which unfortunately fell victim to my post-vacation-viewing triage.) On the same night, meanwhile, Showtime debuts the strenuously topical House of Lies, which makes dark comedy out of how the rich continue to get richer in post-TARP America.

Part soap, part historical drama, part social comedy and part post-Edwardian-furnishings catalogue, Downton is not interested in throwing bombs at the class structure it depicts. The first season divided its attention between an uppercrust clan, trying to keep its country estate in the family through advantageous marriage, and the servants who keep the place running–but it depicted both with general good will and generosity.

The social comment, if there is any, comes from context. Julian Fellowes writes the series so pitch-perfect that it feels it could be an adaptation of a novel of the period. But as in a period drama like Mad Men, part of our understanding comes from knowing what’s going to come next: in this case, World War I will be fought, revolutions will sweep Europe, the West’s faith in its own rationality and underpinnings will be challenged–as will England’s equanimity toward the class barriers that have kept the Crawley family and their like on an even keel. The first season began with a remote disaster–the sinking of the Titanic–and ended with the rumblings of war.

Season two begins, literally, in the midst of that war: upper- and lower-class men are going off to die in the trenches, and coming home traumatized and disfigured. There’s actual war to parallel the drawing-room wars, and along with it, the season plays like a more overt melodrama than the first. It’s not just that the stakes are more mortal: everything feels more underlined–the musical cues, the personal backstabbing, and the dialogue, which even more than the first season has a tendency to blatantly state the themes. (If you didn’t realize this was a show about the social structure changing in Britain, you’ll realize it after the third or fourth time, in the two-hour premiere, some character states some variation on, “Everything is changing now.”)

But if Downton’s staging and dialogue can be too on-the-nose, the characters are still drawn with great subtlety. The series does an especially good job of showing how change can be tough to accept, even for a group that stands to gain from it. For every hired hand who’s eager for a new world in which they can aspire to more than a life of serving Crepes Suzette, there’s one who holds on for dear life to the caste rules that have given life its structure. And the series makes an effort to understand the various Crawleys–especially the family’s three daughters–as they try to adapt to a world that will expect more of them than keeping up lovely appearances. (The exception may be Maggie Smith, who has great fun as Violet, the family’s imperious, controlling matriarch.)

Downton was one of the pleasant surprises of 2011, though maybe overpraised. I don’t think it’s a great series on the level of Mad Men–which also has its melodramatic twists (stolen identity! surprise pregnancy!) but gives its characters more of the messy psychology of real life. But it is both an absorbing costume drama and an intriguing story of reality intruding on a fantastic way of life, as the Downton Estate is put into commission, at one point, as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers–a literal occupation, and a dramatically pointed one.

House of Lies, on the other hand, is a comedy of class war as told from the point of view of the perennial winners–or, at least, their very well-paid assistants. The series follows Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle), top hotshot at Galweather-Stearn, a management-consulting firm that does… well, it’s hard to figure out what they do, and as Marty tells us, that means “we’re doing it well.”

Ostensibly, Marty and his team are problem-solvers, hiring their firm out to companies with business or image woes and selling them “solutions.” Really, what they sell is fear: the fear that the company will be doomed without their help, bought at a hefty price and, preferably, over a very long term. And if, incidentally, their fixes mean that a bunch of the rest of us get laid off or bamboozled—well, grass, meet elephants.

In the first episode (an edited version of which is already streaming online, above), Marty’s client is MetroCapital, a financial octopus that has landed in the public stockade for writing billions in bad mortgages. Marty and his crew (a fast-talking and -walking bunch including Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson) need to devise the company a face-saving public strategy–one, preferably, that involves actually helping as few people as possible–while also not being “counseled out,” i.e., losing business to a rival consulting team, run by Marty’s ex-wife (Dawn Olivieri).

As befits a show with Cheadle in the lead, House of Lies has a kind of swaggering, Ocean’s Eleven vibe. There’s a peppy soundtrack and a visually playful style which often involves freeze-framing the action around Marty so he can explain jargon or tactics to us. (The device gets tired after a while, though producers sometimes freshen it up, as when Marty whips out a red marker and diagrams the targets of his con on the frozen screen.) The guest players are venal and broadly comic. It’s a bank-heist story, really, except that Marty is stealing both from the banks (or other companies) and for them, from the rest of us.

This doesn’t exactly make Marty and company a sympathetic bunch, except in comparison to the richer, dumber people they service and swindle. (Marty confides to us that he makes seven figures a year, putting him comfortably in the 1%.) It’s a pleasure to watch the pleasure Cheadle invests Marty with as he slices through a presentation. At one point, he flabbergasts the MetroCapital CEO with a video reel of dispossessed homeowners telling his company, “Fuck you,” and you begin to think that there’s a moral point to his pitch. But no: “Now you may not care about these customers,” Marty says, and adds, “I know I don’t!” in a delicious stage-whisper before smoothly moving on.

Marty, as he tells is in one monologue, is good because he knows how to close, an act akin to sex for him: “I tickle your taint and you open up like a lotus flower.” Oh, yeah: a lot of screwing in House of Lies, which is a kind of metaphor for screwing the client, the competitor and the consumer, and also, for attractive people getting naked and screwing on pay cable. House of Lies is sharp, but not big on subtext: Showtime does not yet care for a lot of subtlety in its shows that are not named Homeland. If you wonder how Marty and his team see the world and their clients, there will be a strategy scene in which they explicitly (in both senses) break it down for you.

All the sleekness and fast-talking polish make House of Lies feel ultimately a little cold and stagey, which probably makes a meta-point as well, but remains cold and stagey nonetheless. The show is most comfortable in the sharky world of business, and its efforts to round out Marty through his home life and personal backstory feel isolated. In a Nurse Jackie / Weeds–esque quirky subplot, he tries to figure out his son, an ambitious kid who wears skirts and has designs on playing the female lead in a school production of Grease. As Marty applies his negotiation skills on his son’s behalf, you see the ways in which he has brought his work home, and it’s rubbed off on his child: “I’ll fuck her up somehow,” his son says of his rival. “Watch your mouth!” Marty reacts. “But yeah. That’s the spirit.”

Like I said, not subtle, and House of Lies is probably a little too eager to diagram its strategies all around. But I guess that’s fitting for a show about people who believe that subtlety is not what gets you paid, or laid. That’s its spirit, and this 1% comedy occupies it with gusto.

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