'House of Lies: The First Season': A Procedural in the Guise of an Edgy 30-Minute Comedy

It might be said that House of Lies is Mad Men updated for the 21st century.

House of Lies

Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz, Josh Lawson, Dawn Olivieri, Donis Leonard Jr, Glynn Turman
Network: Showtime
UK Release date: 2013-01-21
US Release date: 2012-12-18

Since House of Lies is on a premium cable channel, it's not unreasonable to assume going into the program that there will be nudity. And sure enough, no time is wasted in bringing bare bodies to the screen. The show opens with a shot of Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle) and his ex-wife Monica Talbot (Dawn Olivieri) tangled together after a long night of regrettable passion. ("Don't. Fuck. Your. Ex. Wife," Marty sternly commands later in the scene.) Comically, Marty attempts to dress his completely nude ex-wife, which has the benefit of exposing her rear for another minute longer than necessary. "Sex sells" is probably emblazoned on a wall somewhere within the headquarters of networks like Showtime, HBO, and Starz.

These first few minutes are but a hint of the basic problem that plagues House of Lies, a problem that networks like Showtime are supposed to be able to move past: cliché. Despite having excellent resources, namely a strong cast and an appealing premise, House of Lies regurgitates the same tropes that have come to define television's best programs in recent years. The show is billed as a corporate satire—never mind the fact the characters we’re supposed to be rooting for are themselves beholden to corporate interests—and with this satire comes heaps upon heaps of cynicism delivered through false smiles. This cynicism, while befitting of this overarching narrative, is nothing new; it might be said that this program is Mad Men updated for the 21st century.

Marty Kaan may be a troubled man, but he's better known as one of the top management consultants in the United States. He, along with his team of Jeannie van der Hooven (Kristen Bell), Clyde Oberholt (Ben Schwartz), and Doug Guggenheim (Josh Lawson) travels around America to various businesses that are all in dire straits. In every episode, Marty and his conniving gang do their best at convincing these corporations that what they are doing will cause their ruin, and only his ingenious plan will save them.

These institutions—ranging from Wall Street financial groups to megachurches—eat up the marketing jargon that Marty rattles through a grinning mouth. Most of the time, Marty is able to get them to sign on the line that is dotted. It's one of the many reasons why he has the renown he does, not to mention his ability to stab even the most loyal client or friend in the back.

Unsurprisingly, that same trait is the root of Marty's troubled home life. After a divorce that's never quite explained, Marty keeps custody of his son Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.), whom he raises with his father Jeremiah (Glynn Turman). Roscoe immediately grabs attention from his first appearance onscreen; dressed in tight, feminine clothing, he's depicted as someone in a state of gender confusion. This storyline has some of the best dramatic potential of the many different narrative arcs, as gender identification is a woefully underexplored topic in television, but we don't end up seeing a whole lot of Roscoe. His main purpose is to demonstrate how much of an absentee father Marty is. Being a marketing consultant means spending four to five days a week on the road, a fact that proves especially trying to Roscoe.

To top it all off, things only get more complicated when Monica, also a top-tier marketing consultant, begins a custody battle with Marty mid-season. Roscoe is a boy with a home he can't identify with, a child with parents he can't look up to.

But while struggling with identity is a field ripe with tension, when House of Lies constantly shifts its tone and structure, it's frustrating more than anything else. When broken down to its basic components, the show becomes not an edgy half-hour comedy, but rather a procedural. House of Lies occupies the same world of Leverage and House, where there's always a new mystery to solve or case to crack on a week-by-week basis. The writers try to disguise this by focusing less on the mechanics of the hard sell and more on the snide observations made by Marty and his crew, but things bear themselves in a pretty obvious direction after the first episode.

Procedurals aren't inherently bad, of course; the comfort that comes in watching a show with a familiar setup can actually be quite rewarding. But House of Lies' attempt to be snarky and self-referential don't really make it any edgier; it just makes it a procedural in the guise of a comedy.

Even more problematic is the way the writers balance the dramatic, backstab-heavy plotlines with the bawdy ones, like one especially unpleasant one involving Mormon sexuality. The tonal shift between these two different moods is usually very abrupt, both on a macro and micro scale. For the first few episodes, the series is light and breezy. The latter half of the season, however, zeroes in on all of the dark, interpersonal drama hinted in the first half. There's comedy all throughout, yes, but it is noticeably diminished by the season's end.

Marty's emotional volatility demonstrates the show's tendency to handle personal issues with a black-and-white simplicity; he's always cool and suave, but the moment a character brings up how Marty is haunted by mother's suicide is mentioned, all cool goes out the window and he's suddenly furious, unable to hold back tears. This sharp emotional oscillation makes House of Lies a very uneven watch.

What's even worse than that, however, are the frequent fourth-wall breaks where Marty addresses the camera. These interludes are where the program pays direct homage to its source material, the nonfiction book House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time by Martin Kihn. The writers unfortunately chose a cut-and-paste way of adapting the book, the result of which are a number of interruptions that could have been done away with. When the actors are left to their smooth-playing, cynical devices, the show does quite well. But the frequent expository dialogue—where Marty defines marketing jargon, secret maneuvers, or gives sage advice like "don't fuck your ex-wife"—makes it feel like one part glammed-up infomercial, one part premium channel sleaze comedy.

In a way, these freeze-frame interludes are a sort of meta-marketing pitch, a chance for Marty to sell us the show. But instead of going for revealing insights into these character's lives, he just rattles off corporate jargon that could have been done less invasively with something like subtitles, if such exposition was even necessary in the first place.

The architects behind the House of Lies appear to have had several great ideas. The world of marketing is interesting, as the success of similarly minded programs has demonstrated, and there is a likable enough cast here to get one to want to cheer for them. But all that's left once the episodes have left the cutting room is a story that rehashes the same motivations that other premium channel programs have: sex, money, power. Any "corporate satire" that uses those three topic areas as its base faces an uphill battle in terms of creativity. Now renewed for a second season, all one can hope for is that House of Lies focuses not on the naked bodies of its female characters and instead on the identity crisis that is its first season.

Included on the two-disc DVD set are two episode commentaries and two short interview featurettes with Bell and Cheadle.


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