Today, the first season of House of Lies is released on DVD. This is a new comedy-drama from US cable network Showtime, about the cutthroat, selfish world of management consultants. Our main corporate bastards are played by Don Cheadle (Hollywood actor, famous) and Kristen Bell (TV and movie actress, beloved), as the series attempts to expose just how nasty, shallow, ruthless and over-sexed these people are.
And in our current climate of hating the rich, surely House of Lies is perfectly timed? With a major talent like Don Cheadle on-board, this could be a big show. Not to mention, Cheadle just won Best Comedy Actor at the Golden Globes for it, so you might be considering giving it a shot. Should you?
The Big Lie Of House Of LiesCheadle plays Marty Kaan, top-grade ruthless bullshitting management consultant, whose personal demons and willingness to do literally anything to succeed make him killer at his job, but incredibly bad at managing his home life - particularly his gender-confused son Roscoe and bitter ex-wife. His team - Jeannie (Bell), Clyde (Ben Schwartz) and Doug (Josh Lawson) - try to back Kaan up and/or clean up after him, whilst bickering and one-upping each other constantly.
The problem is that House of Lies aims high. The writers have clearly seen good TV shows, and want to make one - setting out not necessarily to make the next The Wire or Breaking Bad, but at least the next Weeds or Dexter - fun Showtime series with memorable concepts, charismatic protagonists, ambitious storytelling and serious points alongside good comedy.
That's commendable, but House of Lies falls short in execution. It doesn't have the subtle shades of characterisation that those series have - the characters each have one major underlying motivation (Marty hates himself because of his mother's suicide, Jeannie wants approval and excitement, Clyde is a smug arsehole, Doug is a over-eager bullied nerd) and every so often those are hinted at, to try and give depth to the superficial sniping and sex that make up much of the running time. When they use a storytelling device (starting at the end and flashing back, unfolding the story through a string of interviews, etc), it rarely enhances the material, it just seems to be there because... you know, why not? That's what the other series do. The one tic the show really runs with - Cheadle addressing the audience - is used cleverly at times, but all too often seems superficial or only serves to slow the action down.
And, most fundamentally of all: what is the point? Maybe the show is meant to be some kind of satire, demonstrating through ludicrous excess how corrupt these people are, but it never pushes them far enough to be funny. It just shows the consultants being arseholes, not enough to be satirical or comical, just sufficiently for us to think "Yes, they are all arseholes", and then we're shoved into a slow, dramatic storyline which requires us to feel sorry for them. It's either a failed satire, or a confused attempt to have the cake, eat it, then perform a hostile takeover on it. House of Lies wants us to admire how glamorous and sexy the life of a management consultant is and hate them for being rich and heartless and buy into the soapy ongoing personal life of Don Cheadle's Marty Kaan, who does a lot of meaningful staring into space.
Maybe a very clever series with real deftness of touch could pull off that complex three-way juggling act, but House of Lies is not that show. It's confused, unsubtle and, too often, just a lot of loud noise and sniping. About halfway through the series, it really starts to get dull.
The Sweet SellNow that I've explained my objections to the entire series, here are some upsides: Don Cheadle, as mentioned, is fantastic. The Marty Kaan soap scenes might be a little jarring as is, but with a lesser actor they'd be a catastrophe. Kristen Bell is also very good, although her character seems to shift motivations from week to week - is she the moral compass of the group, or an ambitious young woman slowly becoming the new Marty Kaan? And when the comedy works, I start wishing they'd spent more time on that aspect. Clyde and Doug's rivalry takes a while to get settled - in the early episodes, their hook-up point-scoring veers into misogynist territory - but by the end, they're a fun, welcome break from the grim ongoing plots.
The caliber of the guest cast is often top notch too. They've got Richard Schiff (Toby from West Wing), also Greg Germann (Fish from Ally McBeal), others too. They nail their scenes, especially Schiff's confrontations with Cheadle towards the end of the run. Marty's home life also contains some genuine performances and likeable characters - Kaan's son Roscoe and his gender issues could easily have been a caricature, but the kid's just so lovely, and that combined with Cheadle's acting means you feel it when their relationship hits the rocks.
To sum up. House of Lies doesn't really click - that doesn't mean it couldn't be made to work, they've got the production values and cast in place to produce a good show, the encouragement of a Golden Globe win behind them. Yes, the first season is confused and messy, but the second could well be fantastic. If I hear good reviews, I could even be tempted to give it a shot. For now, though: unless you're a huge fan of the actors mentioned or you particularly like dissecting TV shows on the internet, I can't really recommend this.