If you weren't particularly impressed by House of Lies' pilot episode -- what with its annoyingly exposition-heavy fourth-wall breaking, so-smirky-you-want-to-punch-them-in-the-face characters and sex scenes that try way too hard to be risqué -- trust us: it does get better. By the third episode of Showtime's newest comic serial, set in the high-powered world of management consulting, the writing has settled down somewhat and the main ensemble has developed a great rapport that helps overcome the at-times shaky material. Even then, House of Lies isn't smart or savvy enough to rank with cable's best comedies (like, say, Curb Your Enthusiasm or The League), but at least it develops into a decent half-hour diversion.
The show's biggest problem, one which was on display throughout last night's pilot, is that it doesn't seem to have much of a point. Granted, it's not like The League aspires to offer some kind of profound social commentary, but that show has a central hook -- fantasy football -- that allows it to spin off in wild directions while still giving the audience some semblance of a throughline. Same thing with Entourage, a show that the House of Lies writers clearly have in their rearview mirror; the Hollywood setting and ups-and-downs of stardom provided audiences with a familiar milieu and narrative arc that they could follow fictional movie star Vince and his gladhanding posse through.
In contrast, "management consulting" isn't necessarily a profession a lot of folks know about, which is why the show's main character Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle) spends so much of the first episode explaining what exactly it is he and his colleagues -- including snappy Jeannie (Kristen Bell), goofy Jean-Ralphio... uh, I mean, Clyde (Ben Scwhartz) and Ivy League snob Doug (Josh Lawson) -- do. Series creator Matthew Carnahan tries to make all this scene-setting fun by having Marty frequently interrupt the onscreen action to talk directly to the audience, offering up pithy definitions of industry jargon like "afterwork" and "data dump." He only gets away with this tired gimmick because Cheadle is just so much damn fun to watch. Quite honestly, I only half-understood what he was rattling on about; I was having too good a time observing Cheadle spitting out his dialogue like he was playing the Alec Baldwin role in Glenglarry Glen Ross.
The pilot dispatched Kaan and his "pod" from the consulting firm Galweather & Stearn to New York City, where they were tasked with landing a major account, image-troubled bank MetroCapital, as new clients. When the initial meeting ends on an inconclusive note, the quartet retire to a strip club to lick their wounds and a few well-toned bodies, like the one belonging to exotic dancer April (Megalyn Echikunwoke, formerly of The 4400). The divorced Marty -- who has a serious love/hate relationship with his psychotic ex-wife and competitor in the consultant game, Monica (Dawn Olivieri) -- hits it off very well with April and brings her along to a dinner with MetroCapital second-in-command Greg Norbet (Greg Germann, reprising his Ally McBeal persona). That dinner immediately goes south when April has a sapphic encounter in the ladies' room with Greg's supposedly frigid wife, thus earning Marty a serious enemy... one whom we'll be seeing again in the not-too-distant future.
Fortunately, the unflappable Mr. Kaan regroups and comes up with a scheme that will repair MetroCapital's image and make them bucketloads of money. Meanwhile, he's periodically interrupted with updates from the homefront, where his cross-dressing son Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.) is auditioning for a role in his school production of Grease... as Sandy.
Besides Cheadle, the other reason to stick with House of Lies is Bell, who brings just the right note of tartness to her role as Marty's overachieving right-hand woman. Much like Californication, which this show precedes, Lies shamelessly exploits most of the female members of the cast (Olivieri bears the brunt of the series' casual misogyny, though her performance and character are both so off-putting anyway, it's hard to feel that sorry for her), but Bell mostly manages to avoid being objectified. Going forward, she and Cheadle continue to hone their chemistry to the point where they're practically finishing each other's sentences Tracy and Hepburn style. They're so good together, it almost feels like this should be a two-person show, as Schwartz and Lawson -- as funny as they both are -- generally wind up as the odd men out in any given narrative. With any other stars at the helm, House of Lies would be completely insufferable. Thankfully, Cheadle and Bell are able to turn the show's smarm into charm.
For rich executives, is one house of lies ever enough? Vloggers Sean Crespo and Carol Harstell take a look at Showtime's new dark comedy:
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