Over the past few years, Showtime has cornered the market on the half-hour dramedy. The recipe is repetitive: cast a well-known actor as a character with a very specific flaw. Add a loving but exasperated family. Sprinkle in equal parts humor and poignancy. Garnish with pay cable levels of nudity, violence, and language.
This description will be familiar to anyone who has seen Weeds, Nurse Jackie, United States of Tara, The Big C, Californication, and Shameless. The series with female leads seem to work much better than those starring men. The women successfully mine both laughs and tears from their tragic situations, whether cancer or drug addiction or multiple personalities, and earn Emmy nominations to boot. The men tend to come off as smug and smarmy.
The latest entry into this Showtime subgenre is no exception. In House of Lies, Don Cheadle stars as Marty Kaan and his affliction is … management consulting. Unlike the diseases, psychic maladies, and criminal activities featured in the other shows, this condition is not obviously compelling.
In its pilot episode, House of Lies does not make much of a case to the contrary. For one thing, it relies on a hackneyed device, when the action occasionally freezes around Kaan, who then breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. Usually he does this not to say anything interesting, but to define some term related to management consulting that someone else has just just used. He sounds like a human glossary rather than a character, particularly since everything he is describing is pretty self-evident. Did we really need him to explain that “counseled out” means getting fired or that “double booked” means that competing for a client? As a result, the asides that should be drawing the viewer into a relationship with Kaan are instead highlighting the show’s lack of confidence in its own premise.
Management consulting as a profession is not as confusing or shrouded in mystery as the show wants the viewer to believe. Essentially, consultants are hired to go into companies and solve problems, usually by crunching data and offering new perspectives on complicated decisions. It is not a particularly glamorous side of the business world, though it is a lucrative one. However, House of Lies chooses to define management consulting as merely doing whatever a large business will pay you to do, painting both the profession and the practitioners in a deeply cynical light. Kaan and his team, which includes the unfortunately named Jeannie Van Der Hooven (Kristin Bell), hate themselves for what they do and frequently discuss the evils done by their clients.
Their complaints are not new, of course. But other fictional explorations of this aspect of corporate life have brought at least a little nuance. The movie Up in the Air focused on consultants, specifically those who go into businesses to help with layoffs. But George Clooney’s character actively defended what he did, even as we could see that he used his job as a crutch to avoid personal commitments. Similarly, Mad Men, in which advertising in the ‘60s might be seen as a proto-management-consulting, draws characters of such complexity and depth that none of them ever simply feels guilty about his or her job.
In House of Lies, Kaan should be the guy defending management consulting. After all, he is supposed to be the best at it. Instead, he seems deeply uncomfortable with the person it has made him. This would be fine if he was struggling to rediscover his integrity, à la Don Draper. But Kaan, Van Der Hooven, and their colleagues all seem to have integrity to spare. They are portrayed as good people who have stumbled into a disreputable field of work. By the end of the first episode, after they have all participated in a pitch to help a subprime mortgage bank scam its customers into believing the company wants to forgive their bad loans, you get the feeling that they’re all already plotting their next career moves into a do-gooder non-profit that will absolve them of their temporary sins.
That’s a problem. While none of these individuals wants to be a management consultant, none looks exactly trapped in the profession either. There’s nothing stopping them from leaving as far as the pilot is concerned. They’re smart, well-educated, and already rich. They don’t seem corrupted by their work. Neither do they seem interested in subverting the companies they work for or transcending the system they work within. There is no disagreement within the team about what they’re doing. They all know it’s wrong and they all do it anyway. This leaves viewers in limbo. We don’t know whether to root for them or against them.
Ultimately, as with all Showtime series, the success of House of Lies will depend on its main character. With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the show right away telegraphs that there is more to Kaan than meets the eye, that he’s not just a con. We’re just not inclined to believe him.