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Showtime's 'House of Lies' Still Standing -- And Soaring
February 17, 2012  | By Eric Gould

House of Lies, Showtime's dark comedy about high-profile, high-risk management consultants, is halfway through its first season -- and it's a bite-sized, half-hour express train, compressing modern life into a plutonium-dense show that's as fast and funny as it is smart.

If you haven't been following, make the effort to catch up, and catch a worthwhile look at the underbelly of corporate culture and what television, as a medium, is capable of achieving...

Each Sunday night at 10 ET on Showtime's House of Lies, a crack, itinerant team of management consultants flies in to different cities, and different companies, to tell them what they're doing wrong and what they need to change. In some cases, it's to profit. In others, merely to survive.


Based on Martin Kihn's 2005 book House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time, this half-hour comedy follows the team led by Don Cheadle's Marty Kaan. Marty is a brilliant, agile and extremely competitive senior executive, who has one eye on fixing the problems in question and the other eye laser-locked on closing the consulting deal -- and the attendant potential billable hours, worth millions to him and his company.

Marty is not nicknamed the "Kaan-man" for nothing. He's quicker than the corporate sharks he's trying to outwit. But even though he's badly behaved, and often ruthless, we soon warm to him as an antihero with a heart. It's hard not to like him when he returns home each night to his cross-dressing 10-year-old son, of whom he is fiercely, almost ferally protective.

That Marty has actual feelings, and isn't all about the money, is fertile territory for a show about sharks in the tank. Marty and his team (collectively known as a pod) know that feelings are as much a part of business as spreadsheets. One of the show's main obsessions, and observations, is where those feelings go, and how we live with them, as the winner-take-all business ethics require some ugly, heartless things.


Marty and his pod are like family: bickering and brutal with each other, but unified against any and all outsiders. When Marty says, to beautiful assistant Jeannie Van Her Hooven (smartly played by Kristen Bell), "I'm not as blonde as you look," it's not just a cheap joke. It's also a toughening quip, tossed out the way a football coach would goad one of his players into a better performance.

Perhaps the best part of House of Lies is its compactness and art direction. Series creator and producer Matthew Carnahan has crafted a vehicle as slippery and dangerous as the snake-like characters inside it. There are freeze-framed scenes with modern life suddenly frozen, allowing Marty to walk through the halted ensembles making asides to the audience, point-blank to the camera.


These Shakespearean winking asides help move plot points along, but they also make us Marty's passive co-conspirators. We have to hope it might work out for him -- not necessarily financially, but ethically. We're part of it. We're in on his game.

The cat-quick editing is suggestive of 1998's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and 2000's Snatch. There are fourth-wall-breaking electronic super-graphics bursting out, and stylized sound effects to match. They heighten the artificiality of Marty's corporate con, as well as the gloss of the corporate culture around him.

It's a smart analogue to our hyper-linked lives, skimming across lots of little moments in media nano-bites, rarely sinking to any authentic depth.

But most of all, House of Lies is about the cynicism, and the raunchiness, of upper management. Marty and the others are all too willing to use their basest impulses, getting Mormon CFOs high on Ecstasy, hiring strippers, and, of course, lying to whatever degree necessary to get the contract.

With a high amount of testosterone in the room, and billion-dollar balance sheets at stake, it's no wonder the language on the show is savage and cruel.

And given the times, it's perhaps even relatable. With financial survival at stake -- and here, it's the survival of the wealthiest -- one would expect it to bring out the worst in people. In House of Lies, it most certainly does. Often hilariously.


Later this season, we'll see Marty set up a business school prospect, partly as a display of his ruthlessness. Even though (or precisely because) the charming young man may be the next great minority player in the firm, Marty plays with the kid like a cat with a half-dead mouse -- just because he can.

And we'll also see if Marty can live up to his own mad-genius reputation by outwitting some of those now blocking his path for advancement, even survival. In a looming takeover of his firm, the Kaan-man is now the target, and his seven-figure livelihood, on which he so clearly relies both financially and psychologically, is clearly in peril.

Given the moral bankruptcy of this one-percenters world and its amplified crudity, you might expect marginal interest in such characters Behaving Badly. Yet there are ample moments where we get glimpses of real people underneath, turning these manipulative and manipulated high-stakes players into characters, not just caricatures.

An up-to-the-minute work that somehow captures the spirit our financially zombified times, House of Lies may be among the best that scripted television can offer -- sharply served up on the dual-edged blade of a back-stabbing knife.

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