'House of Lies' premiere review: Too often, a house of pain

House of Lies, the new Showtime comedy that premiered Sunday night, could have been so much better than it is. It stars Don Cheadle, Craig Ferguson’s Paris trip amie Kristen Bell, Parks and Recreation‘s Ben Schwartz, and others as management consultants forever on the move, on the make, making monkeys out of greed-heads while being mighty greedy themselves.

All of which sounds terrific in concept. Cheadle and Bell are each in their own way exceedingly charming performers with a devilish aspect to their images. And at this time in history, who doesn’t want to see undeservingly wealthy people get fleeced, or at least brought low by their avarice? In practice, however, House of Lies becomes a zero-sum game: Creeps conning creeps, and the creeps we’re supposed to root for — Cheadle’s gang at Galweather & Stearn, led by their boss, The West Wing‘s Richard Schiff — don’t seem all that much more interesting than the clients they’re gouging.

Creator Matthew Carnahan was also the guy behind another smart-aleck, would-be insidery show, the 2006 Courtney Cox flop Dirt, and he loads his new show with lines that sound borrowed from Glengarry Glen Ross (“Closing is what I do!”). The series’ visual gimmick is to periodically freeze all the action in a frame except for one figure, usually Cheadle, who uses the pause to explain some inside-biz term or motive for the business move we’re about to see transacted.

Most of the time, House of Lies plays like one of those glossy, empty USA Network shows like White Collar or Psych, but with a butt-load of the sort of sexual activity one can get away with on pay-cable. That means both ends of this creature, so to speak, aren’t all that interesting. People talk fast on Psych because the folks making it think you’ll mistake that for snappy patter; people have grunting quickies in semi-public places on cable TV because they think it’ll turn us on. But there’s no novelty or freshness in House of Lies‘ patter or its penis-placement.

The show’s crucial weakness is its dead language: The lines have no comic lilt; no exchange between any two characters gives off sparks. When you have an actor with a tongue as adroit as Cheadle, this seems nearly cruel.

The sex is brutish and quick, laced with hostility — orgasm as inflicted punishment. In the second episode, the promise of lively flirtation is proffered the moment the bright-eyed Cat Deeley shows up in an airport cameo. But the show’s writers use her the way they use everyone else here — Deeley ends up looking foolish for being friendly to one of Cheadle’s team, even having to stoop to mop up coffee spilled on a man’s crotch. (Coffee she didn’t even spill herself.)

Lies attempts to make Cheadle’s Marty Kaan a vivid character in two ways, only one of which works. The best thing about Marty is that he’s one of the few black characters on TV who acknowledges there’s racism all around him, that he can sometimes play that pernicious situation to your advantage, but most of the time, he’s alternately stoic, angry, or hurt — and Cheadle makes every one of these reactions believable. Less believable is the family life for Marty that’s been created by the series to soften, to humanize this wheeling-dealing machine of a man. He lives with his father (a fine Glynn Turman) and his son, Roscoe (Donis Leonard, Jr.), who likes to cross-dress in public. We’re meant to think that Marty is a great dad for defending his young son’s emerging, or conflicted, or whatever it is all prepubescent kids go through, sexuality against the criticisms of his ex-wife and school officials. The two sides of Marty don’t mesh: The impatient shark during the working day doesn’t seem likely to be able to chill out so completely when he deigns to do a little parenting. This compartmentalizing makes sense — hardworking people do it all the time — but, again, the dialogue that accompanies this simply makes Marty seem a little schizo, rather than the torn, man in pain he’s probably meant to be.

I’ll be very curious, if you watched House, to know what you think.

Twitter: @kentucker

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