After the success of Homeland (aka the show I named the best show of 2011), Showtime has a lot of goodwill on its hands. So it’s somewhat disappointing that their follow-up, the smarmy management consultant half hour comedy House of Lies, is such a mixed bag.
Let’s break it down…(Spoilers ahead)The pilot episode was put on the interwebs earlier this week in advance of the show’s Sunday night launch – likely in an effort to garner more attention on a crowded night. Advanced reviews haven’t been overly kind and I can’t say I feel much differently.
The show is based on Martin Kihn’s book “House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time”. The show focuses primarily on Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle), the head of a team of management consultants that work for Galweather-Stern, the second best firm in the US. Cheadle has tremendous appeal, though this is a role that is a bit more roguish and may be more difficult for fans to accept. Marty’s a smooth talker, prone to bad decision-making that turns out well, is cold and calculating except when the character needs a touch of heart. He’s also quite the lady’s man (panties drop when he comes around). All of this might be okay if it didn’t all feel so familiar: he’s a shark with heart, like all the great anti-heroes, but here it comes off as too much caricature. This is especially true in the moments when Marty breaks the fourth wall to give us the skinny on management speak as though he’s letting us in on a secret. It’s a cutesy, thoroughly post-modern technique that feels like it’s been put in to make the show feel more youthful and vibrant. I’m not denying that it works since there’s a great amount of energy and flow in the pilot – it’s just too obvious that these were conscious decisions made by series creator Matthew Carnahan.
Marty leads a team of hotshots, including second billed Kristen Bell as the token female counterpoint, Jeannie Van Der Hooven. Jeannie is the most fleshed out of the show’s two female leads (the other being Marty’s ex-wife, Monica, played by Dawn Olivieri with whom he “hate fucks” and exchanges catty barbs). Your appreciation of the role of women – and gender – in the pilot will depend on your world outlook: it is either an accurate representation of men’s treatment of women in high ranking positions or a misogynist continuation of the”I am man/see how masculine I am” world perspective we’ve seen so much of this season (see: Man Up!, Last Man Standing and Work It…or better yet don’t). I love Bell and have followed her into some pretty dark places since her star debut in Veronica Mars, so it pleased me immensely that her character isn’t a huge suckfest. In fact, this is easily the best project she’s done since Veronica. Jeannie, aside from the “harvesting eggs” bit, is intelligent, quick witted and just as able to get dirty with the boys (Side Note: If the show has any interest in being original, it will avoid pairing up Jeannie and Marty, which the pilot not-so-slyly shoves down our throats).
Unfortunately Jeannie is surrounded by men who seems incapable of thinking with the big head as opposed to the little head below the waist. Marty opens the episode naked in bed with ex-Monica (do we need to zero in on Oliveri’s breasts?), then bangs a stripper on the team’s night out in NY, then does the same to the mother of his son’s rival at the school’s production of Grease. The focus on sex apparently continues in future episodes when Doug (Josh Lawson) the more prim of the other two team members has an encounter with a transvestite and Ben Schwartz’s Clyde, the youthful imbecile, dates a virgin. Add into the mix Marty’s cliched, effeminate son (who wants to play Sandy in Grease, dresses in girl’s clothing and wants to go shoe shopping) and the show borders on camp and exhibitionism.
All this focus on sex doesn’t exactly serve to flesh out the characters, though. Instead it feels like a desperate ploy to appeal to the lowest common denominator. This is familiar territory for Carnahan, whose previous effort Dirt focused on the sleazy dealings of a tabloid magazine. In the failed Courtney Cox vehicle, the show ran the gamut from vulgar to disgusting to disturbing. Don’t get me wrong – there is a place for humour in caustic protagonists and their “can’t turn away” trainwreck antics (case in point: late 90s gem, Action with sleazeball extradordinaire Jay Mohr. I’ll never forget the episode where his sport agent character sleeps with a closeted gay athlete to protect his career only to lose the account anyways)
In the end, I can honestly say that I laughed a few times. There were also several times when I groaned because the show feels desperate to be cynical, edgy and in-your-face. I’ll likely check in again somewhere down the line, if only because - like reviewer Jeff Liens - I like Cheadle and Bell. Reading that future episodes continue many of these less than positive trends makes me apprehensive, though.
Who knows? Perhaps the show will right itself in time. If not, there are plenty of “house of lies” puns waiting to be written…
House of Lies premieres on Showtime Sunday, January 8 at 10 pm. For readers in the US, it is currently available on Youtube. For readers elsewhere, there are less scrupulous means of accessing it online.