“House of Lies,” which premieres Sunday, is a new series from Showtime about management consultants. The job is described as impossible to describe, but the general idea is that they’re con artists who make troubled corporations dependent on their own company’s advice. As legend-in-his-field Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle) puts it, the goal is to “make them think they can’t live without us .... while we infect the host and bleed them dry.”
Among other things, the show — based on a memoir by Marty Kihn, once head writer for VH1’s “Pop-Up Videos” — seems to me a product of the knowledge that “Californication” can’t last forever, and that it would be good for the network to have another male-targeted sex fantasy on hand when it goes. When characters aren’t having sex here, they are trying to have it, or talking about it, or using it as a metaphor for practically anything else that might be discussed.
Well-crafted and a little — sometimes more than a little — unpleasant, “House of Lies” also resembles Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” and “Thank You for Smoking,” colorful films whose antiheroic, well-dressed, good-looking lead characters also spend a lot of time on planes and explain their unsympathetic work to the audience as they go along. We’re possibly supposed to feel a little bit good about that work, which might have an incidentally positive real-world effect, but mostly we are to feel good about the winning. A lot of the humor involves one character humiliating another, sadly.
“House of Lies” creator Matthew Carnahan, who also created FX’s similarly complexioned tabloid-news comedy “Dirt,” says in the press book, “Marty is motivated by the most petty and venal things imaginable: ambition, sex, revenge, schadenfreude ... in other words, he’s exactly like the rest of us.” (Hmm ... No.) A self-promoting, self-destructive mix of calculation and poor impulse control, he may or may not be heading for some sort of crisis: “You open your mouth and the damage just spills right out,” observes colleague Jeannie, played by Kristen Bell, and the first episode ends with Marty anxiously regarding his face in a mirror, as if seeing himself for the first time. But it’s a vision that fades through the following half-hours.
It is in the interest of the series, of course, to keep Marty behaving badly. That’s how it goes with TV antiheroes: Their triumph is in getting to remain who they are. There is usually someone worse than him — or just as bad but not as cool — nearby, and (the classic fallback) he is a good father — a better father than his pilled-up ex-wife and competitor (Dawn Olivieri) is a mother, anyway. At any rate, he’s a nonjudgmental one: His son auditions for the Olivia Newton-John role in the school production of “Grease,” and Marty is fine with that.
Cheadle and Bell have good chemistry. But it’s a great cast all around, with Glynn Turman as Marty’s father, Griffin Dunne and Richard Schiff as his superiors, and Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson rounding out his “pod.”