January 06, 2012 11:57am PT by Tim Goodman
TV Review: 'House of Lies' Gives Showtime a Raunchy Laugher
Showtime’s aggressively raunchy and audaciously funny new sitcom, House of Lies, has a number of lucky things going for it.
First, it stars Don Cheadle, who is impossible to look away from in a role he owns so completely that Showtime might as well start the Emmy campaign. Second, Cheadle plays management consultant Marty Kaan who will do just about anything to fleece the 1% fat cats pissing off everybody in the country, so that’s a role and premise that just might have viewers occupying their couches in droves. It also doesn’t hurt that Kristen Bell gets to be a bad-ass grown up in this and that series creator Matthew Carnahan (Dirt), has a knack for giving Cheadle incredible material to riff on and the rest of the cast (including Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson) enough one-liners and snark to fuel a hit.
House of Lies premieres Sunday at 10 p.m.
As Kaan (yeah, the con man, get it), Cheadle heads the second most powerful group of management consultants available (his ex-wife heads the first) criss-crossing the country finding powerful companies to help by telling them what their problems are even if problems don’t exist. His ruthless approach to taking the money of executives and companies who have more than enough involves matching wits with smart and powerful people trained to sniff out bullshit. Except that Marty Kaan is the king of bullshit and can sling it more effectively than just about anyone, save for his possibly insane, mostly heartless ex-wife Monica (Dawn Olivieri).
Although consultants as good-guys (even thieving good-guys) is itself a tough sell, House of Lies makes it all work by having the victims – companies, executives – look like even more unsympathetic dupes who deserve what they get because of their greed or stupidity.
House of Lies uses the slogan “Funny. Dirty. Business” as short-hand for what the show is about and those three words are pretty accurate. The “dirty” element comes from the almost non-stop discussion of, pursuit of and depiction of sexual deeds. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with that road and it is, after all, Showtime’s pay-cable birthright, that doesn’t mean House of Lies and Carnahan wouldn’t be better off relying less on that crutch over the long haul. Here’s why: House of Lies is too smart and savagely clever to have to rely on what ultimately amounts to frat-boy humor as its guiding tone.
Glimpses of rich storytelling veins not married to incessant crotch-talk come from the depiction of Marty’s young son, Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.), who likes to cross-dress and openly discusses whether or not to like boys or girls. And Marty’s father Jeremiah (Glynn Turman), a retired psychiatrist who is effectively raising Roscoe while Marty is out making seven figures in the non-stop world of consulting. Roscoe lives with Marty because his mother Monica is an even worse parental figure (and makes no bones about it). What’s intriguing is how the series is slowly tapping into Marty having the capacity to be a good father (and perhaps how having a psychiatrist father – and a mother who committed suicide – hindered his own childhood development). By the fifth episode, even Monica gets a chance to reflect on whether she can actually love her own son and if he loves her back. These are heartily welcomed diversions when House of Lies leans on the crutch of sex jokes too often.
Elsewhere, House of Lies is stylistically interesting in that every episode has scenes that freeze but Marty walks out of them and talks to the camera before the scene resumes (sometimes altered by Marty’s tweaking while everyone else is frozen). Now, you might think this would get too gimmicky but it doesn’t – primarily because what Cheadle gets to say in those moments is often something hilarious or searingly cynical.
Of course, that brings it all back to Cheadle. There’s an exceptional cast in House of Lies (Olivieri in particular wastes no opportunity to push the boundaries on Monica), but everything revolves around the fact that Cheadle is riveting and impressively deft at being funny one moment, serious the next and always filled with charisma. He’s the giant magnet at the center of the show.
But at least House of Lies is giving him (and the rest of the actors) something fresh and different to devour, which makes it a show you need to consult with.