Showtime has developed a bit of a brand, for better or worse, in the half-hour dramedy (heavy on the melodrama, light on the comedy) focused on a flawed (and often unlikeable) lead. Sometimes, this works really well (the first few seasons of “Weeds” and “Californication,” and most of the whole run of “The United States of Tara”). Sometimes it fails miserably (seriously, “Nurse Jackie” is garbage). And sometimes is just falls flat (“The Big C,” while watchable, isn’t particularly memorable or must-see). Whereas the earlier Showtime series had to nudge their way into the darker dramatic elements, it seems like newer series get the green-light from Day One to be this bizarre hybrid. And so it would appear to be with “House of Lies,” premiering this Sunday.
“House of Lies” is about a management consultant firm run by Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle). I have a buddy who started doing “management consulting” right out of college and in over ten years he has never been able to explain what the hell it is he does. I eventually came to realize that this is because “management consulting” is one of the best euphemisms going for “pure, unadulterated bullshit.” So these consulting firms come into a business, which is usually either in a load of trouble or looking to expand and grow beyond its current market, and basically put together a game-plan. One part PR, one part business strategy, and all parts “pay us a lot of money because we’re indispensable and you’ll never make it without us.”
The show has a gimmick of having the action “freeze” so that Kaan can break the fourth wall and talk to the audience and in one such break, he explains the bullshit nature of consulting:
Consulting’s like dissing a really pretty girl so she’ll want you more. We need them to think they’re almost perfect so we can book that after-work. After-work. After-work really is the goal of all consulting. Get them on the tit, thinking that their business is going to fail without you. They hire you week in and week out, that’s millions and millions in billable hours. That’s what we want baby.
(And if that’s not on-the-nose enough for you, how about the title of Martin Kihn’s book upon which the show is based: House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time?)
This gimmick of talking to the viewer has been used by many shows and it rarely works. “House of Lies” doesn’t pull it off particularly well, both because the show seems to think this technique is a bit glossier and cooler than it is, and because most of the time, when Kaan is explaining some consulting jargon or general aspect of the business, we don’t really need the explanation and can just as readily glean it from the context of the show itself. That said, the breakaways almost work anyway, despite themselves, simply because you just can’t dislike Cheadle.
In fact, while I’m lukewarm on the show based on the pilot, which has a superficial sheen to it while not managing to be particularly dramatic or funny, I really want to like the show because of Cheadle. Despite the fact that he’s been acting for almost 30 years, despite the fact that he has over 60 acting credits on his resume, despite the fact that he’s almost always phenomenal, and despite the fact that I’ve never met anyone who has ever said anything other than “oh, I love Don Cheadle,” I feel like Cheadle is one of the most underappreciated actors out there. You ask someone about him, sure, they declare their love, but in a vacuum, his name isn’t one that immediately jumps to mind. But it should, because he is great, particularly in a role like this, one with equal parts Smooth and Snide, with just a hint of Self-Loathing brimming beneath the surface. At least in the pilot, it’s not a particularly funny role (a few attempts at humor through his Kaan generally miss the mark), but it’s a fun role, and one that I welcome continuing to watch.
Of course, I’m also rooting for the show because of two other cast members, Kristen Bell and Ben Schwartz. With her guest appearances on “Party Down” as the terrifyingly funny Uda Bengt, and of course her three seasons as Veronica Mars, Bell has shown a great knack for comedic timing, as well as some solid dramatic chops. While it’s unclear where her character is going to fall on the comedy/drama spectrum, I just hope they write a part that plays to her talents. And as for Schwartz, he provided the episode’s few actual laughs thanks to the specter of Jean-Ralphio (his wonderful “Parks & Rec” character) popping up now and again.
The one other interesting aspect to the show is the son of Cheadle and his ex-wife (who runs her own consulting agency, once that’s considered the top dog over Kaan’s). Cheadle’s Kaan lives with his own father (Glynn Turman, one of the more fantastic “those guys” who you’re always happy to see) and his son, Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.), a tween cross-dresser. Roscoe is interesting because they don’t play him for laughs per se, or at least, not just as “look at the little boy who wants to play a girl’s part in ‘Grease.’ ” The show has fun with Cheadle’s confusion over his son’s predilections and if it can toe the line between doing that while actually treating and exploring Roscoe seriously and honestly, this could wind up being the highlight of the series.
“House of Lies” is paired with “Californication,” Showtime’s version of “Entourage.” “Californication” is still occasionally funny, and I’ll always be willing to watch David Duchovny, but the lack of any ramification for Hank Moody’s actions is becoming increasingly obtrusive to the ability to otherwise enjoy the show and its copious amounts of breastage flashing (and from what I’ve seen of the new season, that won’t/doesn’t/can’t change). Pairing “House of Lies” with “Californication” makes sense, because both shows share a glossy “look at me” sensibility. But whereas “Californication” quickly fell into a repetitive rut which its coolness factor couldn’t save, I’m cautiously optimistic that “House of Lies” can find a groove and do something better with itself. Worst case, at least we get a season of Cheadle and Bell, and if that’s all we get from the show, I’ll take it.
“House of Lies” premieres on Showtime on January 8, rerunning throughout the week.