January 8, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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HOUSE OF LIES – Sundays 10PM on Showtime – If Nothing Else Is On…
Showtime took a major step forward this season with its gripping new drama series Homeland, a show worthy of being mentioned with anything on TV.  The network’s new comedy HOUSE OF LIES, though, is considerably less of an event.
The setting may be the world of management consulting rather than show business, but based on its pilot, House of Lies is trying too hard to copy its hour-mate Californication.  Don Cheadle has the David Duchovny unprincipled-but-talented role, playing Marty Kaan; it’s no accident that his last name is pronounced like “con,” because Marty’s consulting business is essentially a con game–he manipulates jargon and statistics to tell huge companies what they want to hear in a way they’re not expecting, and rakes in their cash.  In the pilot, he finds a way to spin a Wall Street firm’s desire to justify its huge bonuses despite the recession, so that they’ll look socially conscious even as they’re buying yachts.  Marty is cynical and more than a little soulless, but he’s our hero because he also has a breezy sense of humor and great charm.  (And because he’s played by Don Cheadle.)

Marty has a team (he calls it the “pod”) of young colleagues:  Jeannie (Kristen Bell), who’s lovely and who, inevitably, Marty wants to sleep with (for now, at least, they merely exchange flirtatious banter); Doug (Josh Lawson), who went to Harvard; and Clyde (Ben Schwartz), who didn’t.  So far Marty is the only character with a back-story:  he lives with his retired shrink father (Glynn Turman) and his young son (Denis Leonard, Jr), who’s experiencing gender issues (in the pilot, we know he’s potentially gay because he wants to play Sandy in a school production of Grease and go shoe-shopping).  Marty’s token bit of depth comes with the disclosure that his mother committed suicide, although at this point we don’t know anything about the circumstances.  Meanwhile, the show features the ever-popular contrivance of Marty’s ex-wife (Dawn Olivieri) also being his most ferocious competitor in the consulting trade, as well as a terrible mother, a pill-popper and Marty’s sometime bed partner.
House of Lies was created by Matthew Carnahan (based on a novel by Martin Kihn), who was previously the creator of Skin, the similarly cynical show about tabloid journalism with Courtney Cox that stumbled through a couple of seasons on FX.  Carnahan’s work here is glib and superficial in a way that’s moderately entertaining, but so far not emotionally involving at all.  Unlike Californication, there are no bonds of believable friendship between the characters, and nothing to compare to the thread of doomed romance between Duchovny’s character and Natascha McElhone’s that has always given that show its center.  Carnahan’s plotting in the pilot seems aimed more at finding spots for gratuitous pay cable sex (a strip club is a key location for the episode, and a key plot point requires 2 of the female characters to jump each others’ bones within about 30 seconds of meeting) than anything else. which is another unwise attempt to ape Californication‘s free-wheeling softcore style.
The one thing House of Lies clearly has going for it is its cast.  Cheadle, of course, is one of the best character actors around, skilled at comedy and drama, and he’s capable of holding audience affection no matter how much of a snake Marty is.  (One of the show’s more effective gimmicks is letting Marty step out of scenes to explain the consulting business directly to viewers.)  It’s a pleasure to see Kristen Bell back playing a character with sharp, witty dialogue after her disastrous attempts to become a movie star, while Ben Schwartz has been hysterical as Jean-Ralphio on Parks & Recreation, and is clearly capable of doing more than the pilot allows.   
House of Lies has plenty of potential.  It’s a smooth piece of work (the pilot was directed by Stephen Hopkins), painless to watch, with likable leads and a decent premise.  What it needs, though, is something to be about other than its own dexterity.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."