The release is the perfect opportunity for Golden Globe viewers to see the show that won Don Cheadle his 2013 best actor award and for fans of Californication to judge its most enthusiastic imitator.
Cheadle plays Marty, the fast-talking con-man who uses his smarts and skill for misdirection to land the big fish CEOs his firm feasts upon and to evade the women lingering in his revolving bedroom door. Kristen Bell is Ivy League grad Jeannie, Marty’s right hand woman and partner in corporate crime. The duo, together with sidekicks Doug and Clyde, criss-cross the domestic skies from Monday to Thursday delivering disquiet and insecurity to the companies who engage them. Friday is a day to celebrate their scores and reaffirm their pride at being the top team at the second best consultancy in town. Based upon the best-selling book by real life consultant Martin Kihn, House of Lies lays bare the tricks of this very modern trade.
Marty’s personal life is rather less slick. He shares his man-about-town penthouse with his ex-shrink Dad (Glynn Turman) and his metrosexual ten-year-old son. Marty hasn’t always been the best father, his extra-curricular activities tending to take priority over family business, but he is trying hard to be a better man. He is already ten times the parent his sociopathic, addict, ex-wife Monica will ever be. Which makes it all the more tricky when he finds her spread-eagled across his bed in the opening moments of episode one. Oops, he did it again.
Monica (Dawn Olivieri) doesn’t confine her assaults upon Marty to the purely physical. His company is pretender to the throne that her employers occupy. Their professional paths already cross a little too often for his taste, whenever prospective clients want to keep the team on their toes, and she is about to get a whole lot closer. The threat of merger is upon Galweather and Stearn and Marty himself put the firm in the firing line. A stripper posing as his wife accidentally broke up the marriage of a key client who in turn has decided to wipe out the love of Marty’s life – his job. He thrives on the thrill of the chase and the fallout from the ensuing drama but this particular soap may prove his undoing.
If the premise sounds promising to you then you are not alone, I approached Matthew Carnahan’s House of Lies confident that we would hit it off from the start. And some of the qualities I had anticipated were present and correct. The team are grifters of the highest order and their Power-Point-backed bait and switches were truly entertaining. Each assignment felt fresh and each solution a triumph of both sneakiness and skill. In this, at least, the writing was Lycra-tight. Don Cheadle is an extremely charismatic man and he imbued the potentially odious Marty with sufficient likeability to gain him a pass for all but his most crass misdemeanours.
However…House of Lies, as a whole, is pretty bad. Not good bad or so-bad-it’s-good but messy and ever so slightly dated. I spoke of Californication earlier because, in my opinion, it is the show that House of Lies aspires to be. Hank and Marty do, superficially, share common ground as characters yet they are poles apart in their transition from page to screen. Marty is engaging but only because Don Cheadle possesses grace and charisma in such abundance that they occasionally breach the implausibility of the character he is playing. The success of Californication lay both in its characterisation and in its pacing. House of Lies’ rhythm is all over the place – Marty’s ‘flanter’ with Jeannie, his sweary asides to camera and the freeze-framing of action are all an unnecessary and irritating distraction. The writing team ought really to have considered Coco Chanel’s advice on accessorising and taken a gimmick or two away from this show before allowing it to leave the house.
A rule I hold in high esteem, which works beautifully for life and for the arts, is this: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. In House of Lies’ case it would be applied thus: just because Showtime allows you to show lady parts, doesn’t mean you are compelled to slap them across every single episode. Here the rule may also be applied to some of the more extreme adult content – I would have understood perfectly well that Monica was sexually experimental without watching her ‘mock’ rape and strangulation. Marty’s character didn’t really endear himself either in that particular scenario. Likewise the repetition of the word tranny – language has evolved and television ought to try to evolve with it. I have no objection to sex, obscenity or nudity. I do object to such lazy writing as leads to their misuse.
The series is a dozen episodes long and it does improve dramatically at the conclusion of episode ten. The slack storytelling pulls taut as the implosion of Marty’s relationship breathes some veracity into the two dimensions of his character. His whiplash reaction to rejection reveals far more of his back story than the fistful of clunky dead-mommy references that came before. The gimmicks recede too so one can abandon the suspicion that Vonda Shepard will leap from the screen, belt an uplifting ballad and drag you back to the ‘90s. The concluding episode gave me a glimmer of optimism for House of Lies’ future and, on that basis, I will take the time to watch season two. I only hope its transition from Saved by the Bell: The Profane Years to witty, topical, watchable television continues.
House of Lies is available to buy from 21st January 2013
The abundant DVD extras include cast commentaries on the first and final episodes and interviews with stars Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell. Episodes of The Borgias (201 & 202) and Dexter (701 & 702) are a bonus asset (via E-Bridge Technology).