After giving anyone with an Internet connection a free (but edited) preview of its newest comedy series late last month, House of Lies finally premieres in all of its adults-only glory on Showtime. After a second viewing sans large boxes of television static and with all the four-letter words reinserted, it’s clear that this series has potential, but whether or not said potential will ever be realized is somewhat murky.
Don Cheadle stars as Marty Kaan (as in con, and unfortunately not "Khaaaan!") who heads up a group of slimy management consultants comprised of Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation) and Josh Lawson (who thankfully avoided headlining the ill-advised Americanization of Spaced). In everything leading up to the premiere episode entitled ‘The Gods of Dangerous Financial Instruments,’ Showtime would have the viewer believe that Marty and his band of management mercenaries were doing battle with such commercial greed by plying their clients with the kind of advice that would eventually undo all sorts of corporate malfeasance.
Not so. Instead, the group pulls out an eleventh hour save by crafting a unique way in which this particular client (whom we are led to believe played a large role in the recent mortgage crisis) can hand out substantial bonuses, while cultivating a public image that prevents those in upper-management from being pummeled in the streets.
Watching bad people do bad things can often be an entertaining way to spend a little downtime in front of the tube. Just look at two of HBO’s most acclaimed series in The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire to see how that network has managed to turn the notion of American greed (corporate and otherwise) into a compelling form of television. Of course the difference here is that House of Lies is intended to be a straightforward comedy while those programs operated more in the realm of drama. The only trouble being, when The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire attempted to inject a small amount of levity into the otherwise somber proceeding, they managed to be far funnier than anything House of Lies has so far put on display.
Despite the large cast, Cheadle’s Marty is the center of House of Lies – we know this because Marty is the only one who can stop time and break the fourth wall. Either that or he’s the only one of the group narcissistic enough to do it on a regular basis. While addressing the audience, Marty uses delightful terms such as “angry bang” – in relation to his sociopathic ex-wife – and spouts lines regarding his professional aptitude that ultimately feel like little more than a frat-boy version of “greed is good”.
Apparently, though, there’s more to Marty than his “real” seven-figure job and the ability to close any deal – a fact, which is made apparent by his live-in father Jeremiah Kaan (Glynn Turman, Super 8) and his son Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.). While these characters are likely intended to help round out Marty’s personality, right now Jeremiah and Roscoe tend to break up the flow of the show and serve only as a kind of safety net to disingenuously convey Marty’s sense of compassion for something other than the almighty dollar. So far, the other two Kaans are a tonal mismatch for the more hedonistic personality House of Lies is putting front and center.
While Marty’s family will probably serve a larger role later on in the series, one can’t help but feel some of the extraneous moments spent with Jeremiah and Roscoe could have been better spent getting to know the people who really define him – or the members of “The Pod”: Clyde (Ben Schwartz), Jeanine (Kristen Bell) and Doug (Josh Lawson). Right now, all that we know about them is that they seem to have the same unprincipled demeanor as their team lead, and that Josh likes to talk while he eats. These “Pod” people aren’t particularly likable – but they’re not unlikable either. At this point, they really are just pod people, broad approximations of actual characters who lack the context of a history or motivation that might give the audience some kind of clue as what makes them tick.
Sure, Kristen Bell’s Jeanine is granted some nice quips, but given that Bell will likely be tasked with handling 50 percent of the overt sexual tension between her and Marty, it’s hard to tell why he’s so doggedly pursuant of her – unless it’s simply because they’re expected to have some kind of regrettable tryst down the road that leads to something akin to actual human emotion. For the moment, though, it feels like Bell is being shortchanged as window dressing for a show whose context is bound to be misinterpreted by overly aggressive males with a penchant for day trading.
That’s not to say there aren’t aspects of the show that have promise. For the most part, the interchange between “The Pod” comes off as the kind of rapid-fire spit-balling one would expect from those who revel in the high-stakes corporate maneuvering; especially the kind that requires a moral compass be tossed in the trash bin on the way to the top floor. It’s too bad that writer Matthew Carnahan (Dirt) and director Stephen Hopkins (Shameless, Californication) see fit to have a good portion of this exchange take place amongst the dingy confines of a strip club.
This is how the entire pilot of House of Lies plays out. For every instance where the audience is ready to buy in, the show spins it in another unnecessarily juvenile direction. To that end, it leaves one wondering just what kind of show HoL is intended to be.
Unfortunately, while the performances (especially those by Cheadle and Bell) are of the level we’ve come to expect from these actors, the characters themselves leave so much to desire in terms of likability that, regardless of the caliber of performance, there’s not much reason to care. Even while defending his son’s tireless pursuit of the role of Sandy in his school’s rendition of Grease, Marty comes off as not believing in his actions anymore than the rest of us do.
Whether its hero, antihero or complete misanthrope, House of Lies is going to have to choose which Marty they are asking Cheadle to play. He’s certainly got the acting chops to pull off any role he chooses, so perhaps this slick, self-loathing huckster that is Marty Kaan can help define the program by first defining himself.
It is that lack of definition that is, and will continue to hurt Showtime’s newest comedy. Right now it vacillates too much between smart, social commentary and outright lunacy. Such frivolity – as a ridiculously forced lesbian scene between Marty’s faux wife and the wife of his intended client Greg Norbert (Greg German) – takes away from a wealth of material House of Lies could be using to be an actually great show.
At a certain point, the edge of a supposedly edgy comedy needs to come from something more than throwing handfuls of nudity and foul language at the screen like so much candy being tossed at a parade. Once the creators find the heart of this show, everything else should fall right into place.
House of Lies airs Sunday nights @10pm on Showtime.