At first glance, “House of Lies” seems to be perfectly suited for the zeitgeist. In the wake of the Occupy movement, a show skewering the outlandish lives of the 1 percent was all but inevitable. But “House of Lies” isn’t really that show — it’s about a wacky team of management consultants having zany adventures at a different struggling megacorporation every week — and this kind of procedural storytelling isn’t really conducive to making a socioeconomic point.
“House of Lies”
Sundays at 10 p.m.
Not only that, but the show’s topicality is completely undermined by its tone-deafness. Showtime often disguises its comedies with the form and tone of dramas, as was the case with “Weeds” and “The Big C.” As satire, “House of Lies” may have been better served by the same treatment. Played straight, it’s just lifestyle porn in the style of “Entourage” married haphazardly to workplace comedy and then stapled to antihero drama.
Just like the characters it portrays, “House of Lies” is way too slick and self-satisfied. You could think of it as a clever metatextual technique intended to echo the mocking characterization of assholes with MBAs. But really, it’s just a show about assholes with MBAs. A strip club scene is portrayed with completely unironic glamour and thus speaks to the show’s lack of self-awareness.
The show’s most irritating conceit is borrowed from, of all things, “Saved by the Bell”: Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda”) stops time occasionally to explain management consulting terms to the audience. This is an unbelievably clumsy way to convey information. And when Cheadle explains terms with obvious definitions, it’s just a meaningless waste of the viewer’s time and patience. In the second episode, instead of stopping time to talk, Cheadle just holds up a bunch of signs with consulting rules on them while looking kind of bored. It’s a bit of a smirk, and it’s good that the show doesn’t take itself all that seriously. But the choppiness just makes “House of Lies” hard to sit through.
“House of Lies” can be a lot of different shows and it tries to be all of them. There’s the aforementioned smirking attempt at formal innovation, which is really just Baby’s First Breaking the Fourth Wall. The show makes a mockery of premium cable; there isn’t a more gratuitous and unnecessary sex scene than the bathroom encounter between Cheadle’s fake stripper spouse-du-jour and his client’s unsatisfied wife. “House of Lies” also aims for emotional character development for Cheadle’s character, and while the writing is unsubtle at best and occasionally hackneyed, it’s better than the hollow, almost nihilistic message that would otherwise be the most prominent part of the show.
Unfortunately, the show’s most promising schtick is also the one that gets the least airtime. Cheadle’s consulting team is a murderer’s row of talented comic actors. Kristen Bell (“Veronica Mars”), Ben Schwartz (“Parks and Recreation”) and Josh Lawson (“Home and Away”) bounce off each other and Cheadle, generating both on-point ensemble comedy and funny one-liners. Bell and Cheadle especially have a deft interplay that could turn romantic, but frankly shouldn’t. These actors are talented enough to make the mediocre material they’re given acceptable. The best scene of the show so far, in which Schwartz (let’s be honest, he’ll always be Jean-Ralphio) explains to Lawson how he would pick up a woman, works because all four characters are involved and because they all come off as fairly likeable people who enjoy each other’s company. Sadly for the show, it’s literally the only instance in the first two episodes for which this is true.
It’s too early to give up on “House of Lies,” if only because you should watch whatever Don Cheadle is in. Kristen Bell is no slouch either, and anyone who loved “Veronica Mars” (which should be everyone) will be pleased to see her on television. Beyond the cast, though, there’s not much to latch onto other than hope that the writing will get better, an iffy proposition given what we’ve seen.