'House of Lies' Review: Not Even Don Cheadle Can Save This Mess

There’s no denying Don Cheadle’s charisma and talent as an actor. He’s born to do what he does. Much like Kenneth Branagh, when he speaks we don’t really want to see or hear anything else. He owns the area around him. We sense an ease in what he’s doing. He’s a chameleon who captures the voice and movements of any character thrown at him. But even Cheadle’s charisma can’t save a slightly typical and slightly partisan show premiering on Showtime tonight.

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“House of Lies,” debuting at 10 p.m. EST, follows a team of management consultants led by lethal-in-a-board-room Marty (Don Cheadle). The supporting characters, however, simply fill out stereotypes. The two other men on Marty’s team exist for little more than to give some cheap, sitcom like laughs, and Kristen Bell exists as a foil for Marty. There’s supposed to be a sexual tension or, at least, tension between the two, but the script never sells the chemistry and neither do the two actors (mainly Bell, who still looks like she belongs in high school).

The show begins by thrusting us into the hectic mess that is Marty’s life. We are introduced to his ex-wife, whose management consultant team is number one (Marty’s is number two). We are introduced to Marty’s shrink father, his son who’s going through a very strange gender crisis, and Marty’s clients. Once we enter the business world Marty inhabits, the writing gets wooden and the politics go left… way left.

Marty’s team points out no more than three or four times how evil the people they work for are. They mention again and again that these people are responsible for the financial crisis and for people living on the street. The dialogue feels ripped right out of a Huffington Post piece and feels very disjointed and out of place. Right after these sucker punches, the characters go back to inhabiting their slimy evil selves. This is the other point the show wants us to understand: these characters are bad or, at least, doing bad things. Because Marty exploits the financial crisis towards the end of the show and states that he doesn’t care about the mortgage crisis, we are supposed to understand that he is selfish and needs to wake up. But these points feel way too heavily pushed and not entirely fleshed out in the script by Matthew Carnahan.

The show gives no mention or thought to the government ripping off the American taxpayer. It simply goes in with the preconceived notion that these men who own these companies are solely responsible and people like Marty only encourage them, but Cheadle plays Marty so we are supposed to hope that he wakes up pretty soon. Politics aside, the show is still pretty typical stuff and disjointed in many parts.

The pilot to “House of Lies” provides us with exactly what we have come to expect from Showtime: nudity, endless sex between strangers and enough cursing to make your Grandma Jones wish it was Sunday already so we could all repent. And there’s nothing wrong with any of this as long as it is organic to the show, but in “House of Lies” you sense that the producers are having a grand old time throwing in strip clubs, lesbian sex scenes and the like just because they’re on Showtime. Actually, when I go back and read that out loud it doesn’t sound too bad. Chalk up a point for this show!

The first episode also doesn’t give us much reason to want to follow these characters. A pilot is supposed to tell you just enough to reel you in and make you desperate to know what will happen to the main character. Showtime’s “Californication” has what could be considered a perfect pilot and it feels almost opposite to “House of Lies.” In that show, we were given laughs and we cared for Hank Moody (David Duchovny), while also despising him. When that final pensive moment came (they always do, even in this show) we desperately wanted to know more. “House of Lies” doesn’t leave us with that sensation.

“House of Lies” is not without merit. Cheadle does what he can with the character and makes some moments rather charming (especially ones where he breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience) and the pilot is shot incredibly well. But, there’s no surprise there. Stephen Hopkins has proven himself as an efficient television director before (he directed the previously mentioned and brilliant “Californication” pilot). Besides that, there’s not much here to justify a long-running series. The show could get better, and one hopes it does because of the talent involved, but based on the pilot alone the show is an ambitious effort that lets partisan politics and a disjointed narrative and all too typical moments get in the way of it being great.