“House of Lies” debuted last night on Showtime. In short, it’s one of those shows where the cast is so good that you want to forgive its many faults in the hopes that the writing eventually catches up to the performances. The premiere episode couldn’t manage that feat, offering an uneven and often clumsy introduction to a series about management consultants.
Don Cheadle is the lead, Marty Kaan, a self-loathing but confident charmer who opens the episode by waking up on his ex-wife’s bare ass after a night of mistake sex. We’re soon introduced to Kaan’s family: A controlling, disapproving father and an adolescent son who wears a skirt and is vying to be Sandy in his school’s production of Grease. Later in the episode, we find out that Kaan’s ex-wife (Dawn Olivieri) also heads the number one management consultant firm (to Marty’s number two), setting up what looks to be a series-long rivalry between the firms.
Kristen Bell is Jeannie Van Der Hooven, one of three junior members of the firm. It’s her job, apparently, to give Marty his reality checks and fend off his sexual advances. Josh Lawson and Ben Schwartz (“Parks and Recreation’s” Jean-Ralphio) round out the cast as the other two junior members, whose roles within the firm aren’t particularly well fleshed out in the pilot.
Here’s the thing: It wasn’t a particularly strong opening episode, and its problems were only exacerbated by the Zack Morrification of Marty, who stops the action in every other scene to explain to the camera the consultant jargon, most of which is self-evident within the context of the situation (and therefore redundant). The show also tries too much and too early on to throw to shock and awe at us with “edge” and nudity: There’s the pill-popping and nude ex-wife; an extended sequence in a strip club; a bathroom lesbian scene; a steamy back-seat hook-up; and a kid going through a sexual identity crisis. That’s an awful lot to cram into 32 minutes, and while I’ve never had an issue with gratuitous nudity, “House of Lies” is overly hellbent on demonstrating soft-core bona fides for Showtime at the expense of the story.
Reservations aside, it is an easy show to watch: It’s light, briskly-paced and Cheadle is charming as hell. And while it does a clumsy job of explaining the mechanics of consulting, it gets its point across: Consulting is a fake job about not only bullsh*tting your clients, but bullsh*tting the public. It’s a soulless, meaningless endeavor that comes with a huge paycheck. If the show begins to explore the characters’ own crises of consciousness within the profession, “House of Lies” may even become something more than a frivolous comedy that features a lot of skin (think “Entourage” with consultants and without the douchebaggery). Until then, it’s well-acted and just engaging enough to overlook just how empty it is.