(Showtime) Three things become apparent within the first ten minutes of the series premiere of Showtime's House of Lies: Don Cheadle is great, the writing is smart, and the four leads have excellent chemistry with each other.
That first one shouldn't surprise anyone who has seen Cheadle recently in films like John Michael McDonagh's The Guard; Cheadle has a natural charisma which he channels into characters that seem cool yet human, never quite comfortable with themselves. As Marty Kaan — the leader of a "pod" of management consultants in House of Lies — he combines his charm with a measure of cynical sleaziness. When Kristen Bell's (Veronica Mars, Heroes) Jeannie suggests that maybe the corporate executives whom their team is pitching shouldn't get huge end-of-year bonuses because they've been selling bad mortgages to the American people, Marty replies, "Oh, boo-hoo." He also isn't above selling out his son's ambition to play Sandy in a school production of Grease in return for a shot at the rival actor's mother.
The two other members of Marty's team are Clyde and Doug, played by Ben Schwartz (Parks & Recreation, The Sarah Silverman Program) and Josh Lawson (Romantically Challenged, The Wedding Party), respectively. Their sibling-like relationship provides a lot of the show's comic relief. Those who grew up watching Comedy Central in the '90s will also be pleased to see Mo Gaffney make an appearance.
Marty regularly breaks the fourth wall by stepping away from his colleagues to explain facets of the consulting world to the camera. We learn terms like "after-work" and "counseled out," as well as the less-than-ethical strategies the consultants use to ensure their job security. In one darkly satirical scene, Marty tells Jeannie to prepare a plan that includes massive layoffs, even though he knows the company they're advising doesn't need them. It's all about making their team seem invaluable to the executives they're pitching — one of them played by the excellent Greg Germann (In Case of Emergency, Talladega Nights).
That's the real strength of House of Lies: it's not afraid to make its main character — as well as most of its supporting characters — utterly dislikable. These are slimy, slimy people who aren't above using video testimonials from the common people their clients have screwed over in order to convince those same clients that they know best how to help them continue screwing those very people over.
In fact, it's only Marty's disdain for his even-more-dispicable ex-wife, played by Dawn Olivieri (The Vampire Diaries, Heroes), that lets us see him in any kind of sympathetic light. He sticks up for his possibly gay son when she flat-out says that she doesn't love him. Any show that has the balls to portray a mother as an outright monster is worth watching.
The writing is daring and immediately engaging; before we even find out where the four consultants are headed on their business trip — when they are still just walking through the airport — they've already said enough of substance to each other to draw us into their lives and make us want to know more. What follows is a kinetic and somewhat surreal series of events. However, the action never seems forced, merely unexpected. You won't be able to guess where any individual scene is going, and that's very refreshing.
There's also an attention to detail, such as Clyde holding two Monster energy drinks in one hand — one on top of the other — during a brainstorming session, which speaks volumes about these characters without having to say a word. Their world is completely fleshed-out from the get-go. It's reminiscent of Robert Altman's work in Nashville and Short Cuts, as well as Paul Weitz's brilliant and more recent black-as-pitch comedy American Dreamz.
Marty reveals a glimmer of self-doubt at the very end of the episode, leading us to expect that his character will probably go through an examination of his life throughout the course of the series. In a satire this sharp and intelligently written, it's sure to be a trip worth taking.
For Fans Of: Robert Altman, American Dreamz, David Mamet, Casino Jack
Why We Like It: Don Cheadle, smart writing, Kristen Bell, engaging characters, topical take on the American financial crisis