Midseason TV: ‘House of Lies’ Series Premiere Review

House of LiesYou know, you think you’re prepared for a Showtime series and then you actually watch it and you realize just how greatly you underestimated those dirty-minded folks over at the freewheeling pay network. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of the new show next to of a Fall season full of murder mystery and high-minded Homeland Security mysteries, but Showtime’s newest series House of Lies comes off as a bit of a slut.

Not that I’m against spending a half hour on Sunday nights with this hussy of series – it’s perfect to accompany Californication and Shameless. It’s also fun, fast-paced, just also happens to get a little wrapped up in a few of life’s…sweatier activities. There are virtually no clothes present in the opening scene of the pilot, but the copious indicators of one supporting character’s raging pill addiction makes it more of a look at the seedy underbelly of our characters’ lives instead of sending us into bouts of bow-chica-wow-wow. Oh, and did I mention this isn’t a show about sex addiction or drugs or sex workers (hey, it’s Showtime; these aren’t places they haven’t been) it’s about marketing. Yup – sexy, slutty marketing.

Don Cheadle stars as Marty Kaan, a fast-talking, off-the-wall management consultant who’s got so many tricks up his sleeve, he could convince a company like Apple that they’ll fail without his help. He leads a team of consultants (played by funny folks Ben Schwartz, Kristen Bell and Josh Lawson) as they twist words, fabricate truths and do everything possible to coax corporate big wigs that they need their grossly over-priced services. And while this element of pulling the wool over the eyes of America’s overpaid elite is an intoxicating notion, it doesn’t play as great of a part in the plot as you might think.

Though Cheadle stops time a la Zack Morris to tell us his little tricks of the trade or to explain any uncommon consulting lingo, the series is mired in its extracurricular activities. In fact, the pilot seems to be driven more by fake stripper wives and lesbian tendencies than actual consulting – though it does manage to work that in too. We also get forays into Kaan’s rather complicated personal life. He’s got an ex-wife (who he occasionally tumbles back into the sack with) who’s about as sweet as a feral cat being thrown off the Santa Monica Pier (played by Dawn Oliveri of The Vampire Diaries). Their son is gay and at a young age, he’s already determined he likes to cross-dress. What I like about this piece of the story is that while Kaan is heartless when it comes to business, he loves his son enough to accept him the way he is and defend that right with the same callous aggression he does everything else. It gives Kaan that gooey center we need to witness in order to actually care about him.

And from Kaan’s slutty, unfeeling management consultant staff, we still manage to get some quality intrapersonal interaction, which just may be what saves this show for me. Sure, it’s hilarious to watch Bell say the disgusting phrases and words that seem to be so integral to her conniving lexicon, and Schwartz’s Clyde is a contained version of his Parks and Recreation character Jean Ralphio, but the zingers, sexual escapades and corporate shenanigans can only take the show so far. (Especially since Jean Ralphio drives a Segway in circles around Clyde in terms of hilariousness –ballers don’t run with their own feet.) The boys’ club cavorting between Lawson’s Doug and Clyde adds a little bit of comfort to a group of pretty terrible people, but it’s Bell’s Jeanie and her complex relationship with Marty that brings it all home. She’s just as tough as the men around her, and infinitely better-looking. This of course lends a sexual tension to her relationship with the promiscuous Marty, but thankfully it’s acknowledged immediately – this isn’t the type of show that needs that whole elephant in the room situation – and it’s coupled with an intrusive, and oft unconventional friendship between the two characters.

Basically, the series is a bit of a pill. It’s not exactly laugh-out loud funny, but mostly because you may worry about the fate of your soul for laughing at these things. It’s not exactly pleasant, yet it’s got this flashy, shiny cover that evokes the illusion that the experience is exactly that – kind of like the business at the heart of the premise. It seems it will take the series awhile to work up to any real cliff-hangers, but from the sample I’ve seen, I know it will get there eventually. But if cliffhangers are your end goal, you may want to look elsewhere. House of Lies is about all the BS in between: foul language and borderline soft core pornography sprinkled with the marks of an Ivy League education. It’s like a business school professor in a micro-mini and five-inch stripper heels.

House of Lies premieres Sunday, Jan. 8 at 10:00 p.m. on Showtime.

You can also get a head start on watching the full pilot here. And tell me what you think of the new series in the comment or on Twitter! (@KelseaStahler)