Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

TV: A ‘House of Lies,’ built by slimeballs

Ken Regan/KEN REGAN/SHOWTIME - Ben Schwartz as Clyde Oberholt, Don Cheadle as Marty Kaan, Josh Lawson as Doug, and Kristen Bell as Jeannie Van Der Hoovenn in ‘House of Lies,’ premiering Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

Showtime’s slimy and almost pointlessly sordid “House of Lies,”which debuts Sunday night, asks us to find room in our cluttered collective conscience for yet another premium-cable ensemble drama (with comic undertones) about coldhearted people who do horrible things, which in turn leaves them torturously self-absorbed.

Don Cheadle stars as Marty Kaan, one of the country’s most successful and ruthless corporate consultants — those mysterious, well-dressed smoothies flown in by your CEO, who, with the flick of a jargon-larded PowerPoint and a dreadful dry-erase board, can upend the lives of everyone from the executives down to the cleaning staff, scorching business plans and revamping marketing initiatives as they go.

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

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By day, Marty and his team are duplicitous, foul-mouthed, money-grubbing slimeballs who jabber in nonsense biz-school codespeak (“Let’s architect the journeyline into an end-state vision that we can leverage into an impactful deliverable”) and whose only focus is to land fatter paydays for the consulting firm. After hours, where all the real work gets done, they charge impressive steak-dinner and strip-bar tabs to the client. They lure conniving junior executives into compromising situations in order beat them at their own game. From the show’s first moments, we are immersed in a morally bankrupt sphere of kill-or-be-killed. The familiar evil of ugly capitalism gets a hard cardio workout here.

But just how much of that can a viewer take? We’re now at a point where you can’t make a TV show anymore unless everyone in it is an unctuously competitive, trash-talking deviant. Showtime, for example, asks us to empathize with a serial killer (“Dexter”), a narcissistic sex addict (“Californication”), one of history’s most sinister popes (“The Borgias”), a drug-dealing mom (“Weeds”), an adulterous nurse hooked on pills (“Nurse Jackie”) and a family of thieves and liars (“Shameless”) who thrive in an atmosphere of squalor and distrust.

A few of those shows are often fairly good, but they all press their luck and tax the viewer’s soul. The problem, I guess, is that nobody wants to watch a show about well-adjusted, uncomplicated people who simply play fair.

Having endured five episodes of “House of Lies,” I might be ready for a show like that. I’ve liked Cheadle in so much else, but he all but cashes out that goodwill with this empty and quickly predictable role. (He’s also a producer of the show, so he has no one to blame but himself.) Unlikability is the hallmark of “House of Lies”; every page of the script is sticky with someone’s spittle.

Based on a tell-all memoir by real-life consulting guru Martin Kihn, “House of Lies” pretty much wastes its own premise, which, with a few tweaks, might have been more like HBO’s deeply anti-corporate “Enlightened,” or the 2009 George Clooney movie “Up in the Air.” Whatever it purports to teach us about the bogus techniques of the high-dollar consulting trade instead gets glossed over and trivialized.

Marty’s team is peopled by a supporting cast of underwhelming caricatures — a Harvard nerd who crunches numbers (Josh Lawson), an overconfident dork (Ben Schwartz) and a pretty striver (Kristen Bell) who mistakenly seeks validation by being as naughty and tough as the guys.

At home, Marty lives in a high-rise L.A. condo with his retired-shrink father (Glynn Turman) and his son, Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.), “House of Lies’s” only surprising character — a gender-questioning fifth-grader who auditions for the female lead in his private school’s production of “Grease.”

Marty also has to cope with his batty ex-wife (Dawn Olivieri), a cruel competitor in the consulting game. They work out their issues with occasional bouts of hate-sex.

Speaking of angry assignations, among its many cable-dramedy cliches (Marty breaking the fourth wall to narrate the story; distasteful insults among co-workers and bros as a sign of teamwork) “House of Lies” is particularly fond of the TV screenwriter’s fantasy that two people who don’t like each other will almost immediately have sex. You know the trope: A man and a woman (or, in one episode, a woman and a woman) glower at one another, trade insults, and then, one quick-cut edit later, they are in a closet or bathroom stall making noises similar to a pair of Air Jordans in a clothes dryer.

In what world? “House of Lies” is far too transparent, wanting too desperately to be like other shows its creators have clearly studied — a little “Entourage” here, a little “Californication” there, and perhaps a dash of “Hung.” In trying to be about over-the-top characters, it forgets to be about people.

House of Lies

(30 minutes) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

 
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