House of Lies is Showtime’s new dark comedy starring Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell as management consultants. That’s it. They’re management consultants. It’s refreshingly low-concept, actually. I just wish it were refreshingly compelling.
The show, which had its premiere on Sunday, 1/8, tries to be edgy and tough, with lots of sex and frank talk of orgasms in a restaurant and fast talking and moments where the world freezes and Cheadle’s character addresses the audience directly. Oh, and the very first thing you see Cheadle do is examine the vagina of the naked woman he is in bed with in an apparent attempt to identify her. Turns out she’s his ex-wife, the father of his son (who’s possibly going through some gender identity issues, which are played for the laughs of the discomfort of Cheadle and the callous assholery of his ex rather than for the situation itself, to the show’s credit), and a consultant at Cheadle’s company’s main rival.
The pilot may or may not represent the plot of a typical episode. Here, Cheadle, Bell, and two other members of the team (including Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation, here playing a smarter but less intuitive version of that same guy) go to New York to try to land a huge contract with a mortgage company of some sorts. A strip-club excursion leads to all-night fun for Cheadle with a stripper, which leads to a chance meeting with an executive at the client company, which leads to the stripper playing Cheadle’s wife at dinner with said exec, which leads to lesbian sex in the bathroom, which leads to a fight, which leads to a brilliant unconventional but ultimately cynical presentation the next day so that Cheadle and his company win the contract over his ex-wife’s firm.
So yeah, I told you, edgy, right? Eh. Maybe. But the key problem for me is: why do I want to watch this show when I hate everyone? Cheadle has a little bit of a soul, and Bell’s character isn’t actively a dick (but she’s not really a full character yet, either), but just about everyone else is someone I won’t root for so much as actively dislike.
“Like” is, of course, not the be-all. You might identify with characters rather than liking them. You might root for them despite not actually liking them all that well. There are any number of relationships you might have with a television character, but in the end, you have to want to spend 30 minutes per week with him or her, and I don’t want to do that with any of these characters. Don Cheadle is a wonderful actor, and everyone loves Kristen Bell (right? You’d better), but they can’t do anything with this material, which is all flash with too little heart, laughs, or anything else that will draw me in next week.