If you’ve picked up a magazine or turned on your cable box lately you’ve probably seen an ad for House of Lies, Showtime’s new show about high-priced management consultants with low morals. Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Jean-Ralphio from Parks & Recreation and some guy with glasses smile glibly as sharks swim around them. That “swimming with sharks” biz is like the Nelson de la Rosa of shorthand imagery, and immediately points to the central problem with the first episode of House of Lies: it’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.
House of Lies wants to be as smart and smooth as its characters but comes off like a pay cable Three’s Company, with unlikely coincidences, comical mix-ups and a fixation on sex. It plays down to 99% populism while salivating over the riches of the 1%. It’s a smug half-hour made bearable by a strong cast and a willingness to address the economic issues that most shows (other than Work It) ignore. It handles those issues so cynically that many might be offended, but how many pay cable protagonists are admirable or respectable, anyway?
On the surface House of Lies has a lot going for it. Cheadle and Bell are fantastic actors with natural charisma, Ben Schwartz (aka Jean-Ralphio) obviously knows how to play a sleazebag for maximum laughs and the central conflict between the mega-rich and the rest of us hasn’t been this timely since the McKinley Administration. But the first episode, as written by series creator Matthew Carnahan (who also created FX’s Dirt and worked on such short-lived shows as Fastlane, Thieves and the Tim Daly version of The Fugitive), is an unlikable exercise in pay cable excess.
It’s also extremely cynical, ending with Cheadle’s group of wealthy consultants showing an even wealthier group of businessmen how to make millions while only appearing to help the same people they already screwed over. At least the show has the courage to stick to its cynical course. A boardroom presentation that feels like a neck-breaking head-first dive into truth-to-power moralizing quickly turns into the self-congratulatory cynicism expected from both financial institutions and cable dramedies about smart people in crisp suits.
Cheadle plays Marty Kaan, head of the number two management consulting firm (his “crazy” ex-wife runs number one). Kaan and his team fly to New York to meet with a firm who reaped an obscene profit from subprime mortgages. As foreclosure ruins the lives of many of their former clients, the board now wants to collect their massive bonuses without ruining what’s left of the firm’s reputation. Sitcom shenanigans of a very Showtime sort ensue, as a chance early-morning encounter with a top executive (played by solid pro Greg Germann) leads to an awkward dinner between Marty, the client, his wife and a beautiful stripper hired to portray Marty’s wife. And of course that wife and stripper take a quick Sapphic sex break in the bathroom while Marty and the client get drunk and fight in a fancy restaurant.
Starz infamously begged for more nudity on Party Down. Between the lipstick lesbianism and the brief glimpses into Marty’s sex life that bookend this episode, it’s easy to assume that either House of Lies received similar network notes or that Carnahan has eagerly headed them off at the pass. House of Lies is desperate to remind us we aren’t watching CBS.
Also annoying is Marty’s ability to freeze time and break the fourth wall. It’s a gimmick that might’ve felt clever on NBC Saturday mornings in 1990 but now it’s a ham-fisted and overly familiar way to tell and not show.
Despite these very pressing problems there’s still a good show possibly lurking within House of Lies. Again, the cast is excellent, and despite heavy exposition, on-the-nose dialogue and Cheadle’s occasional mugging, the primaries acquit themselves well. No one is given much to do beyond Cheadle, but Bell flashes the whip-smart confidence of Veronica Mars and Ben Schwartz’s slightly more restrained Jean-Ralphio doppelganger provides the few comic moments that don’t feel belabored.
Marty’s family dynamic also has potential. Not his relationship with his ex-wife, so much, as the sparring exes who occasionally fall in bed with each other is a moldy melodramatic cliche. Marty lives with his dad and his transgender teenage son, and although Marty seems slightly (and problematically) disappointed in his son at the beginning, by the end he is strongly defending his son’s right to try out for the role of Sandy in a school production of Grease. This veers close to being just one more quirk in a show too full of them, but these are the only human moments in this episode, and the only reason to care about Kaan as a character. House of Lies would have a better foundation if it can make us care about Kaan’s professional relationships as much as his personal ones.