The newest no-good, scumbucket-of-an-antihero on cable TV is House of Lies’s Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle), a smooth-talking and absolutely unscrupulous business consultant who pulls in seven figures selling corporations his services. What are his services, exactly? Well, all Marty seems to do is expense trips to high-end strip clubs and bullshit his way through board meetings with nonsensical PowerPoint presentations and even more nonsensical jargon, which he explains the origins of to the audience in stylized, fourth-wall-breaking freeze frames and literally plays puppet master with those around him. He’s the man behind the curtain, and his only job is to use big words and phony numbers to convince corporations that they’ll go bankrupt unless they give him massive amounts of money. Well, that, and he has lots of trashy sex, often with his evil ex-wife and business rival, Dawn (Monica Talbot).
Aiding Marty is the “Pod,” a group of three hotshots headlined by Jeannie (Kristen Bell), the protégée Marty abuses but who also seems to have his number. Bell and Cheadle share decent chemistry, but their repartee, while suitably snappy, is rarely funny. Also along for the ride is Doug (Josh Lawson), the Harvard-educated nerd who handles the numbers, and Clyde (Ben Schwartz, who’s basically reprising his role of Jean-Ralphio on Parks and Recreation), the would-be lothario who conforms to as many MBA stereotypes as possible. As usual, Showtime has assembled a great cast, and it all sounds good on paper. The problem is that the show’s too slick, the characters are supremely shallow, and the storylines aren’t particularly fun.
As a character, Marty is at his most compelling when dealing with his cross-dressing son, Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.), who he’s secretly disappointed with but nonetheless tries to protect from the kid’s sociopathic addict mother and the homophobes at school. Elsewhere, Marty hits all the cliché antihero beats. He’s the mad genius who spends 90% of each episode pissing everyone off, but then nails it in the boardroom; it’s enough to make you wish Lloyd Bentsen would show up and tell Marty in no uncertain terms, “You’re no Don Draper.” But perhaps the ignoble protagonist Marty most resembles is Shameless’s Frank Gallagher. They both ostensibly care about their families, yet pass them off to more capable relatives and neglect them in favor of their respective obsessions (Frank’s booze and Marty’s career). But most notably, they’re both men personally undone by their overwhelming drives toward making a profit through whatever devious means necessary.
The concept of a rich Frank Gallagher may seem interesting, but by playing up obvious stereotypes and turning its characters into cartoons, House of Lies has even less to say about wealth than Shameless has to say about poverty. And at least Shameless is funny, which isn’t a good sign considering House of Lies is supposed to be the more explicitly comedic of the two.
Ultimately, House of Lies engages in the very behavior it purports to criticize, albeit with much smaller stakes: Much like how charismatic Marty uses his formidable talents to sell CEOs on business plans with no substance, House of Lies relies on the strength of its performers to convince the audience that there’s something beneath its surface. There’s nothing wrong with vapidity, but when each episode is capped off by a few supposedly meaningful moments of Marty doing something dramatic like driving really fast or staring at his reflection, or whatever else might make it clear just how troubled and self-loathing he really is, it just feels inauthentic.
These scenes, invariably presented in slow motion, are almost convincing, because it’s Don Cheadle, and he’s good at selling us such things. But with a moment’s more reflection, it all comes crashing down. Because from its embellished execution to its uninspired writing and very conception, the smarmy House of Lies is like so many speculative financial bubbles that characters like Marty have had their hands in: There’s just nothing there.