TV network branding might just be the most mind-warping sector of the entertainment industry. While most businesses allow a certain degree of control in their own brand development, TV is at the mercy of capricious executives, unpredictable showrunners and the monster of public opinion. So, when a premium network like Showtime tries with all the might of its marketing department to brand itself as the fun, winking alternative to HBO’s much-deserved reputation as a purveyor of excellent but self-serious programming, it can be painful to watch it stumble through a new, not-terribly-good show like its newest outing, House of Lies. The series Showtime and creator Matthew Carnahan have on their hands is not, as they imagine, clever, sexy and iconoclastic. Instead, it’s puerile, overindulgent and often tries way too hard to court its audience’s affections.
Don Cheadle stars as Marty Kaan, a corporate spin doctor consultant based on the ideas present in satirist Martin Kihn’s book, House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time. Throughout the show’s pilot (which airs January 8th on Showtime and is currently available on the network’s website), Marty breaks the fourth wall in flashy freeze-frame sequences to explain corporate consulting jargon that, honestly, could have been explained more organically throughout the season. Of course, House of Lies isn’t nearly patient enough to parcel out its terminology so gradually. It’s no Rubicon, though I’m sure both Carnahan and Showtime top boy David Nevins are worried about the show having a similarly short run. HoL‘s pilot lays the stimulation on so thick that it’s an obvious ploy to grab the ever-lucrative lowest common denominator.
In a rather puzzling decision, the pilot removes most of the central cast from their home base in Los Angeles to romp around New York on a contract to save the image of a transparently unethical mortgage firm in the wake of the sub-prime lending crisis. While there’s no problem (and not just a little appeal) in HoL being a globetrotting show, this field trip seems wasted. The subtle color and lighting differences between bright, sunny California and drab, blue-tone Manhattan mean nothing when all we’ve seen of Marty’s life is his gorgeous apartment and some Sorkin-lite walk-and-talk pieces in LAX.
But really, the biggest problem with the pilot is its tendency to turn all dialogue into exposition. Aside from the freeze-frame bits, which at least attempt to be fun, the episode is littered with awkward info-dumps that are meant to fill out characters who deserve better. Most egregiously, the script wastes Kristen Bell as young consultant Jeannie. She’s Marty’s psychologically incisive coworker who barely says anything that isn’t a wordy description/deconstruction of Marty’s backstory, only to be treated to a mix of misogyny and exposition in return. Unless, of course, the world of corporate consulting is populated by people who often tell their colleagues things they already know about themselves.
That aforementioned misogyny isn’t limited to Jeannie, though. Every other woman in the pilot is some kind of psychopath, be it Marty’s pill-popping bitch of an ex-wife and professional rival, the wild-eyed stripper Marty inexplicably brings to a business dinner or the wife of his executive client who literally can’t go five minutes on screen without succumbing to the temptation to have wild, lesbian sex in the bathroom of a posh restaurant.
I suppose we shouldn’t expect more from Showtime at this point. It is, after all, the network that has mined years of entertainment from watching a serial killer do what he does best. The problem is that House of Lies isn’t even fun for switching off one’s brain and just enjoying the ride. It insults without challenging values, indulges in the emptiest ways possible and does character work either badly or not at all. In the end, it’s like a week’s worth of bad sitcoms with the addition of tits and the suggestion of emotional conflict without the scripting to back it up.