A few years back, Matthew Carnahan created a series that couldn’t have seemed more timely. In FX’s “Dirt,” Courteney Cox played the editor of a celebrity tabloid, and the show came on just as gossip was beginning to drive most entertainment news (and news, period, in some cases). But “Dirt” never seemed to know what kind of show it wanted to be when it grew up, and Cox’s character wavered between villainous and virtuous.
“House of Lies,” Carnahan’s new Showtime dramedy (it premieres Sunday night at 10), also feels incredibly timely. In this age of Occupy Wall Street, it’s a show ostensibly lampooning the 1%, as we follow a team of management consultants who travel around the country trying to fix – or, at least, hustle fees out of – one large, inhumane corporation after another.
And while it’s more entertaining than “Dirt” – thanks primarily to the chemistry of a cast headed by Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell – it suffers from the same wobbly sense of tone and direction. It’s in the right place and the right time, but it’s not necessarily the right show.
Cheadle plays ace consultant Marty Kaan, who has a reputation as a brilliant problem solver, even though everything he presents to his clients is a lie in one way or another – not least being his interest in fixing their problems.
Marty, who frequently pauses the action so he can explain the business to the audience(*), puts it this way: “The only thing that we need to figure out is what makes them think they can’t live without us for the next three years while we infect the host and bleed them dry.”
(*) The gimmick at times makes him seem like a grown-up version of Zack Morris from “Saved by the Bell,” and there are even a couple of times where he uses his time-stopping powers to mess with people.
In arranging the game that way, Carnahan manages to sidestep the problem of having to depict Marty as a man who gives great advice that actually seems impressive, since he rarely does. But he only gets around the “Studio 60” problem – where a show tells viewers that a character is great at something but repeatedly fails to show them that – to a point, because even Marty’s various cons to make the clients think he’s helping them more than he is don’t seem all that dazzling.
And part of the problem is that the writing doesn’t always seem sure of how cold and ruthless Marty wants to be. There’s a take on this material that would work wonderfully as vicious satire of the current sorry state of the economy, in which Marty and his team gleefully steal from the uber-wealthy while still allowing them to screw over the little guy because everyone is equally selfish.
But “House of Lies” tends to wax and wane on just how venal Marty is, how troubled he is or isn’t by the methods he uses and the clients that he works for. Marty has demons – demons his psychiatrist father (played by the great Glynn Turman) will happily discuss if Marty will let him – and has trouble connecting with his cross-dressing son Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.) And while well-rounded characterization is great – particularly with an actor as expressive and subtle and gifted as Don Cheadle – it does feel at times like “House of Lies” is hedging with Marty, and with its attitude about him and his work. (Though it’s not as schizophrenic on this issue as “Dirt” was with Cox.)
Where the show works best is when we’re just watching Marty and the rest of his team: rising star Jeannie (Bell, returning to TV after several years of starring in lousy movie romcoms), wise-cracking Clyde (Ben Schwartz, who plays epic d-bag Jean-Ralphio on “Parks and Recreation”) and uptight Harvard alum Doug (Australian actor Josh Lawson). Bell doesn’t get nearly as much to play as Cheadle – even though her time on “Veronica Mars” showed her to be every bit as versatile and subtle as her new co-star – but the four actors
work very well together, even as their characters largely view each other with competitive contempt. The second episode has a running gag about the others taking great pleasure in Doug embarrassing himself with the woman of his dreams, and when the show steps away from Marty’s emotional issues and whatever larger points it wants to make about corporate culture and just lets the main characters interact, it’s genuinely funny. Not as funny as “Shameless,” which begins its second season an hour before “House of Lies” debuts, but much funnier than most of the other shows that Showtime actually refers to as comedies.
There’s enough involving the main characters that I’m willing to stick around for a bit to let the rest of “House of Lies” find itself. On the other hand, “Dirt” never got significantly better than it was at the beginning – it returned for its second and final season with several tweaks, none of which addressed the show’s larger problems – so what we see now may be what we get. And there are far worse ways to spend a half hour of television than watching Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell enjoy the hell out of each other’s company.
NOTE: Showtime put an edited version of the “House of Lies” pilot online late last month, so some of you have seen it. I would just ask that those of you who have keep your comments vague until after it premieres on Showtime Sunday night and I put up my usual talkback post. Opinion, fine; plot/joke spoilers less so. Thanks.