Showtime's smart new series, starring Don Cheadle, follows a team of management consultants. It's too bad it relies on the cable clichés of gratuitous sex and stereotyping.
It may be a profitable time to be a management consultant, but as far as the public's concerned, the profession has hit a rough patch. Elite universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have come under scrutiny from Occupy Wall Street and likeminded critics for the numbers of graduates funnelled into the finance and consulting industries. In pop culture, Lev Grossman's The Magician King (soon to be a television show on Fox) imagines management consulting to be a scam that provides a hideaway for magical burnouts. And now on Showtime's new sitcom, House of Lies, a team of management consultants from an up-and-coming firm, led by Marty Kahn (an alternately impish and melancholy Don Cheadle), represent everything that's wrong with the American economy. Anchored by some strong performances and acid scenarios, House of Lies, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern time, could turn out to be the best comedy about the recession yet. It's too bad that the people behind it seem unaware of their show's own strengths.
House of Lies is at its best when it focuses specifically on the grotesqueness and desperation of the one percent, a subject that management consulting is uniquely poised to explore. "These guys are just looking for a way to justify their bonuses," one of Doug's junior team members tells him as they walk through the airport on the way to their first assignment. "And why shouldn't they?" Marty wants to know. "Because they robbed the American public of billions of dollars by selling them bad mortgages," his coworker Jeannie (a charming but underused Kristen Bell) tells him. And true to form, Greg Norbert, an executive at fictional mortgage giant MetroCapital, complains that people are unjustly angry at the company for giving them what they wanted in a boom, suggesting that underwater homeowners "cowboy the fuck up."
But rather than delivering a short, sharp shock to the self-satisfied mortgage barons, Marty's team explains that America hates the company and then outlines a plan for MetroCapital to lie its0 way to a better reputation. He offers up a "mortgage amnesty" program that, after disqualifications, will actually help very few struggling homeowners but will let the company stave off enough criticism to keep their bonuses. Rarely have corporate priorities been so clearly articulated.
After the assignment at MetroCapital, Greg Norbert appears again, this time to set into motion the season's major plot arc: MetroCapital's attempt to acquire the firm Marty and his team work for so the mortgage company can have in-house consultants rather than hiring outsiders. "After you left, we felt sad," Greg tells Marty, who had hoped not to see Greg again after a sublimely awkward business dinner. "No, not really. But we had all this bailout money." That last line sums up one of the most off-putting things about the economic crisis and recovery we've been living through since 2008: The people substantially responsible for our current peril ended up with a lot of money and remain unrepentant.
If only the show would keep its consultants focused on cases like MetroCapital's to expose the rot in the American economy. They could easily take on a financial services firm trying to avoid a Lehman-like fate, a payday lender, or an outrageously abusive CEO like former Massey Energy boss Don Blakenship. Unfortunately, House of Lies keeps veering off into extracurricular hijinks, perpetuating in a tiresome misconception that's becoming increasingly common on cable: the idea that naughtiness is inherently interesting. Surely by now no one is surprised that Midwesterners, too, have sex dungeons and foot fetishes, or that self-professed masters of the universe sleep with a lot of women. It was vastly more entertaining to watch Ben Schwartz chastely profess admiration for Leslie Knope as wannabe small-town operator Jean Ralphio on Parks and Recreation than to sit through a scene of him contemplating anal sex with a saucy Mormon chick as he does on House of Lies. The network show may be tamer than the cable one, but it's more clever and winning. And it was much more revelatory to watch Damian Lewis and Claire Danes's damaged victims of the War on Terror make love sober for the first time on fellow Showtime program Homeland than it is to see House of Lies' Marty bring a stripper to a business dinner, only to have her hook up with Marty's client's wife in the ladies room.
That's not to say that the show fails entirely when it comes to its characters' personal lives. One of the best parts of House of Lies is what Marty comes home to. It's refreshing to see a household made up of three generations of black men, rather than a standard contingent of matriarchs. From the first scene of Marty's family life, it's clear that he, his father, and his son are all characters rather than tropes. His retired therapist father struggles with the memory of Marty's mother's suicide and helps raise Roscoe, Marty's son, who prefers to dress in girl's clothes and tries out for Sandy in the school's production of Grease (though it's not yet clear if he's gay). House of Lies is admirably unafraid to present Marty as something more subtle and intriguing than a fully supportive father. Like Burt Hummel on Glee, Marty struggles to understand what Roscoe is going through. The pain on his face when Roscoe asks him "Hey dad, what's a fudgepacker?"—the boy wanting to know what the term means before admitting he's been called it—is hard to witness.
But because his son is so much younger than Glee's Kurt Hummel and less clear about the permanence of his sexual and gender identity, Marty has much more negotiating to do. In an early episode, he stands up for Roscoe's right to try out for Sandy in a school production of Grease. "He wants to sing 'Summer Nights' and wear a poodle skirt," Marty rants to Roscoe's principal when a rival's mother protests his son landing the part. "Now Britney Kaufman's mother can't stand it that her little baby isn't getting every goddamn thing she wants so she's off on some kind of gender witch hunt." It's a stirring defense, but ultimately a hollow one: Marty eventually folds and accepts a compromise with the school to put Roscoe in the less-visible but still-female role of Rizzo. It's both a protective act and a betrayal, an illustration of the imperfect choices parents make on behalf of their gay and gender-variant children all of the time. Rather than simply preaching parental tolerance, there's something bracing about House of Lies' insistence that parenting correctly is hard work even in the best of circumstances.
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Given the skillful ambiguity on display here, it's a shame Marty's ex-wife is such a stereotype. She's a wildly neglectful and spoiled pill-popper who ignores Roscoe except when she's stood up by her married boyfriend or wants to use him to hurt Marty. "Our son's a tranny for life," she complains when Marty lets Roscoe try out for Grease. "He's experimenting with different modes of gender identification," Marty spits back at her, barely under control. We're told she's brilliant at her job—she's a rival consultant—a contradiction that would be fascinating to see reconciled with her slovenly personal life. But instead of watching her close deals, we see Marty having hate-sex with her and then dressing her in the morning when she's too stoned to wake up.
The show does better in its rejection of colorblindness. It refuses to pretend that people don't see Marty's blackness just because he's successful and powerful. On assignment to a Mormon-run hotel chain, the executives assume Marty's white, younger colleague is his boss. And talking to a black, Harvard-trained recruit to the firm, Marty offers a blunt assessment of one of his superiors: "He's a racist piece of shit." It's a nice contrast to the sunny multiculturalism of the USA Network shows like White Collar and to artifacts like The Help, which insist that good intentions, even paternalistic ones, wash well-meaning white people clean of the sins of racism. House of Lies very much stands by the idea that we're hardly a post-racial society.
If House of Lies rooted its week-by-week cases in these sorts of insights about our corporate cultures, our economy, and the consultants who attend to the people at its peak, it would be a revelation. But who has time for that when there are Mormon executives to be deflowered, expense accounts to be flaunted, and ex-wives to shame instead?