House of Lies is Showtime's new half-hour comedy about wealth management con-sultants. Based on Martin Kihn’s book, “House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time, ” the series was adapted by Matthew Carnahan and stars Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell and Ben Schwartz. The pilot "Gods Of Dangerous Financial Instruments" was directed by Emmy award winning Stephen Hopkins. Now, if that came across as a laundry list, well, that was the point. There are a lot of talented people involved in this show so the fact that the first episode was, well, a bit of a train wreck doesn't mean the series won't get better.
The hardest genre to pull off is comedy. And satire - which I think was the goal - is Mount Everest. It's Dr. Strangelove. Or for television, it's Arrested Development. It's certainly no easy feat and House of Lies definitely struggled to find its footing. For the most part, any indictment of the system was buried under mountains of 'style' and it came across as playtime in the world of the one percent instead of any kind of scathing statement. However, it's worth keeping in mind that many first episodes aren't very good and perhaps have to establish the world our characters live-in before irreverently tearing it apart. So, on with "Gods of Dangerous Financial Instruments."
"Don't ever fuck your ex-wife."
This is probably where the show ran into the most trouble. It's the series opening. The first impression. And it played as my least favorite segment of the entire episode. It opens on Don Cheadle's Marty Kaan waking up in a naked ying-yang with a still sleeping woman. He's clearly not happy with the situation - it turns out it's because it's his ex-wife and business rival - and is unable to wake her up. At this point, I'm thinking she could possibly be dead so the ensuing physical comedy doesn't really work so well.
Okay, the butt-cheek to Cheadle cheek was amusing as was the following knowing glance break of the fourth wall but when he soon breaks into full on time-outs (I feel like this is the time I'm obligated to mention Zack Morris and Saved by the Bell) to explain management consultant terminology - even when the term is completely clear to the most mildly discerning audience ('counseled out') - it just falls flat and kills all the momentum. Oh, and I forgot about Kaan's son Roscoe. Or should I say the moment my doubts turned to full fledged fears. Was the series really going to kill itself with cliches and stylistic trappings all in the first two minutes? In fact, the first half of the episode is almost unwatchable.
House of Lies' only redeeming factor is the cast. Somewhat salvaged by good performances all around - and the cast was really entertaining - the style still complete overpowers everything else on screen. I don't think there was a moment in the first ten minutes that wasn't accompanied by some bombastic and annoying piece of music or the all too frequent asides. After Marty ushers his wife out of his apartment, he, his flamboyantly homosexual son and his sweet and sensible father Jeremiah (Glynn Turman) have breakfast together where we learn that Roscoe wants to play the part of Sandy in the school's production of Grease. The exchange between Marty and Jeremiah after the son leaves is the first that seems genuine and the show would do well to exploit more of these quiet moments.
"You're Kaan? You're the mad genius we're paying all this money for? Well, why don't you just tell us what you're thinking. Go."
The trappings carry as we meet the team at Galweather & Stearn including Jeannie (Bell), Clyde (Ben Schwartz) and Doug (Josh Lawson). During a very Sorkin like walk and talk introduction (one that manages to span the entire country) we get a little taste of each of the members of the team but not enough to make them feel like actual people. Bell gets a little more attention but merely as a banter paddle for Cheadle's Kaan. Luckily, all the actors have enough charisma to bring a little something to make their non-characters stand out at times. It doesn't help that most of these introductory minutes, especially the Jeannie and Marty exchange, are just heaps of exposition masked with swear words and sexual advances.
Soon the team arrive at the client's downtown skyscraper and we finally begin to see what a management consultant actually does, namely, crunching numbers and more bullshitting. The client this week is one of the nation's top fake financial firms (MetroCapital) who has recently taken a beating in public perception. Obviously. Enter Galweather & Stearn to consult them on how to still be able to gives themselves fat bonus checks while not looking like complete monsters. Being complete monsters, completely fine. Looking like complete monsters, completely unacceptable. One of the top executives in the firm is Greg Norbert (Greg Germann) and he actually gets more screen time in the pilot than the rest of the team. Norbert brings Marty into a strategy session and here's where I actually found myself getting a little excited at the prospect of what this show could be in the future.
While still heavy on the style, we get two good sequences back to back. I found the 'Management Consulting 101' segment to be really entertaining and provide actual insider insight on how the system relies on so much bullshit. This is what the series should be about. I'm not suggesting that you shouldn't have interesting characters too (you need them) but don't mistake outrageous or stereotypical for interesting or developed. Anyway, back to the positive, the boardroom sequence was quite good - flashcards and all - and even though Marty walked away defeated, he followed it up with a great phone call with his son's principal. And so is the ensuing exchange between the members of G&S... "Congratulations, that's one of the pink ladies right?" Unfortunately, all that good will kind of goes out the window in the next few scenes, first with the really on the nose discussion between Marty and Jeannie and then the entire strip club scene. I'll admit, I like watching Kristen Bell dance as much as the next guy (and Jean Ralphio with strippers is funny) but it seems to be lacking any sense of self-awareness, irony or, you know, humor.
"The moment when you have the guys who have the world by the balls, by the balls."
Soon Marty leaves the strip club with a particularly attractive and intelligent dancer to go share some breakfast and there he runs into Greg Norbert. A man easily impressed by trophies, Greg invites the Kaans - oh, yes, she pretends to be Marty's wife - out to dinner with the Norberts. That way they can also prep for the presentation, a tidbit Marty is happy to share with the rest of the team when he arrives smelling of booze and in the same clothes as the previous night. I loved Clyde with the two cans of Monster on top of one another. Again, the more time actually spent with the team bantering, the more enjoyable the show becomes. Bell, Schwartz and Lawson were by far the best part of the episode, if only they were given more to do. This isn't a knock on Cheadle, who was great with the group as well, but more on the needlessly outrageous scenes that Marty gets into on his own - or worse, ones like a lesbian encounter between two peripheral characters.
Sorry, before the dinner date goes off the rails, we first learn that Marty's ex-wife Monica (Dawn Olivieri) is also a management consultant. And not only that, she works at a better firm that's being brought in to bid on the same job. Oh, and did I mention that she, in only a few minutes of screen time, might be the most unlikable character on television? While her and her "cunties" go into the financial firm to likely steal the job away from G&S, Marty decides to have a little quiet time with the homeless lady living out front. Homeless thanks to MetroCapital. And now, back to dinner with his stripper-wife and the Norberts. While the boys talk shop at the table, the ladies decide to go and fool around in the bathroom. I'm not sure why either. The rest of the dinner is equally enlightening with the final eruption again, way over the top.
The next morning, the team watches Marty's Ex dazzle the room while we're forced to listen to another forced exchange between him and Jeannie. She tells him her diagnosis, that he's just a scared little man, before they go into the boardroom for their presentation. This part completely won me over. It showed why this group of people are able to bilk the people who bilk people out of their money. It's a pretty well executed sequence, showing how, with a little creativity and hard-work, you can have your cake and eat it too. Their advice to come clean and implement a (paper tiger) amnesty plan to divert public perception and allow them to cash in on their bonuses. After all the disqualified applicants, the firm will end up spending no more than a few image spots would have cost them, except this way they actually look good and get rich. That's the kind of sequences the show should be striving for, the kind that peel back facade and show how things really work. Leave all the stylistic trappings behind. I want the insider information and I want it presented as brutally as possible. Let comedy will come from the characters.
House of Lies is on Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime. It stars Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz, Josh Lawson, Dawn Oliveri, Glynn Turman and Donis Leonard Jr. It was created by Matthew Carnahan.