The Bottom Line
- Stars Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz, Josh Lawson, Dawn Olivieri, Donis Leonard Jr., Glynn Turman
- Created by Matthew Carnahan
- Airs Sundays at 10 p.m. EST starting January 8, 2012, on Showtime
That’s a shame, because the shadowy world of management consulting, in which outsiders are paid huge amounts of money to tell corporations how to run their business, is ripe for satire. The series is based on consultant Martin Kihn’s memoir House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time, and Carnahan delights in throwing in bits of industry jargon that are then explained by Marty in cutesy fourth-wall-breaking asides that quickly grow tiresome. But instead of illuminating this questionable, highly lucrative profession, the show mostly just uses it as window dressing for the same kind of “morally questionable” characters that have become so worn out on cable shows, especially Showtime’s joke-averse “comedies” like The Big C and Nurse Jackie.
House of Lies is at least looser and more playful than those shows, and it’s best when the four main consultant characters are bantering with each other about the business. The talented and funny Kristen Bell and Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation’s Jean-Ralphio), plus Josh Lawson, play the other members of Marty’s team, and they have a nice chemistry even if they don’t get a whole lot of character development. It’s especially disappointing to see Bell, who spent three seasons carrying the excellent Veronica Mars, relegated to eye candy much of the time, although as the season goes on, her character, ambitious young consultant Jeannie Van der Hooven, does get a little more depth.
The somewhat tragic back story that develops for Marty is less convincing, though, especially when it seems like an afterthought in comparison to the parade of naked hotties and ever-kinkier sexcapades. It’s great that shows on premium cable can depict this sort of stuff without restrictions, but Carnahan doesn’t seem to know how to balance that freedom with telling a good story and creating interesting characters. He almost always goes for the vulgar, obvious joke over something more clever, and that does a disservice to the characters who are supposed to be extremely educated and cultured, as well as to the talented cast.
Cheadle, Bell and Schwartz are all charming and fun to watch, and along with the rest of the cast they make the show less grating than it could have been. Some of the corporate intrigue is engaging, and some of the episodes attempt to deal with the current economy in an amusing way. But with its unique milieu and strong actors, House of Lies should be more than just barely passable. It could have been incisive, funny satire, but it settles for cheap and titillating instead.