Episode Title: "Gods of Dangerous Financial Instruments"
Writer: Matthew Carnahan
Director: Stephen Hopkins
For the last few months, "House of Lies" has been receiving an enormous push from Showtime. And on the surface, what's not to love about Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell in a comedy together?
Unsurprisingly, Cheadle seems to have an abundance of charm as Marty Kaan, even as he hurriedly dresses his passed out ex-wife, Monica Talbot (Dawn Olivieri) after a night of drug-induced angry sex between bitter rivals. But Marty himself is pretty much an unlikable jerk. All of his best aspects are coming from Cheadle's performance, rather than the character as written.
Marty is a shameless management consultant and he is apparently very successful at it too. Alongside his team, Clyde Oberholt (Ben Schwartz), Doug Guggenheim (Josh Lawson) and Jeannie Van Der Hooven (Kristen Bell); Marty travels to New York to consult with MetroCapital… the stand-in for every evil bank ever. Marty constantly breaks the fourth wall to explain management terminology and the tricks of the trade as he tries to get MetroCapital to sign on without really saying anything.
Refreshingly, the CEO, K. Warren McDale (John Aylward) sees through Marty's BS and calls in a rival management firm to bid against them… led by Marty's ex-wife, Monica.
In the face of adversity, Marty and his team handle it like professionals… and spend the night out at a strip bar. Even Jeannie seems to enjoy herself as Marty slips out with a stripper named April (Megalyn Echikunwoke) for an all-nighter. And after a random encounter with MetroCapital's number two man, Greg Norbert (Greg Germann); Marty suddenly finds himself stuck with April as his "trophy wife" for a planned dinner meeting with Greg and his wife, Rachel (Anna Camp).
At first, April seems like she may be an intellectual match for Marty, as she slips into his world fairly easily. She also slips into Rachel fairly easily during a restroom visit. I guess that's the danger of bringing a stripper to a business dinner. You never know which way they're gonna go.
The initial lesbian encounter is kind of funny, but rather than play the rest of the scene with any subtly, the writer has Rachel loudly announce her tryst with April at the dinner table… which naturally brings Marty and Greg to blows. That sequence felt like it could have been comedy gold, but the execution was pretty far off.
Having alienated his one ally at MetroCapital while Monica no doubt delivers an exceptional pitch; Marty and his team take the opposite track. They startle the MetroCapital executives with videos of ordinary Americans expressing their anger towards them… and then Marty presents a limited loan amnesty PR move that would make the bank look like financial heroes while claiming their fat bonuses. And to top it off, Jeannie spells out how barely any of the loan amnesty applicants will get any relief at all.
I'll say this for "House of Lies," it's relentlessly cynical. One of the more recent promotional themes for this show centered on the idea that Marty and his crew are sticking it to the 1%. But that's not true at all. Marty and company are simply overcharging the 1% while giving them new ideas about how to screw the 99%. There is something sharp about Marty's presentation and his style, but is it funny?
On the homefront, Marty lives with his father Jeremiah (Glynn Turman) and his son (by Monica), Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.); who appears to have gender identity issues as he pursues the role of Sandy in a school production of "Grease." Marty isn't convinced that his son is gay or transgendered, but he refuses to make an issue out of it because he's convinced that Roscoe is just doing it for attention. And so when Roscoe gets the part, Marty actually argues for his son to remain in the role over the objections of the principal and some of the parents.
And yet, Marty can't put his son before some of his baser urges and he sneaks out to the car with one of the single moms for a sexual encounter while Roscoe terrorizes the eventual Sandy during a musical number.
In short, Marty is a terrible person and a pretty terrible father. His lone redeeming quality may be that he's starting to question himself… even if he can't quite bring himself to vocalize it to another person. Marty is an antihero to be sure, but it remains to be seen if he has a heart.
As for the costars, Schwartz and Lawson fade into the background pretty quickly. But it's Bell's character who really disappoints. Jeannie is positioned as Marty's potential love interest/protegee, but there's no spark between Bell and Cheadle. And aside from the fact that Jeannie is played by Bell, she doesn't come off as a convincing female character. Jeannie is almost interchangeable with Doug and Clyde; which seems like a waste of all of their talents. The only other character on "House of Lies" besides Marty who has any sense of life is Monica, and she's a monster.
It's too early to tell if this series is going to have legs. I've noticed that some cable comedies don't seem to try as hard to be humorous when they can rely on language and adult content. Call it the "Entourage syndrome."
With this cast, there's no excuse why "House of Lies" shouldn't eventually work. But it's always going to come down to the writing.
Crave Online Rating: 6 out of 10.