'House of Lies' review: The leads aren't weak, but a lot is

house-of-lies-review.jpg"House of Lies" is the new half-hour comedy from Showtime starring Don Cheadle as Marty Kaan, a project manager at a highly successful management consulting firm called Galweather & Stern. Kaan is flanked by a team made up of the awkward resume-touting Doug ( Josh Lawson), the smarmy John Ralphio Clyde ( Ben Schwartz) and the smart, sassy Jeannie ( Kristen Bell).

Kaan's mirror at a competing consulting firm is none other than his ex-wife Monica ( Dawn Olivieri), while Kaan's roommates include his father Jeremiah (the wonderful Glynn Turman) and son Roscoe ( Donis Leonard Jr.).

The show's premiere features Kaan and his team jet-setting to New York from their Los Angeles base to meet with a financial company, one that in the world of the show helped cause America's sub-prime mortgage crisis. Kaan's company basically makes money by creating the illusion that they indispensable to their clients. The last name of "Kaan" ("con") is a little too on-the-nose.

Kaan is yet another flawed male Showtime lead - he's a greedy businessman whose job is made up of a lot of smoke and mirrors. He says things like - the client should think "that their business is going to fail without you" and "closing is the thing I do that sets me apart from you. It makes me bullet-proof. I can close anybody," which means the dialogue sounds like the scripts from "Wall Street" and "Glengarry Glen Ross" were fed into a machine designed to spit out lines that demonstrate how bad everyone is.

There is little to like in any of the characters and the bits with Kaan being understanding to his gender-identity questioning son Roscoe don't seem organic. It's like - hey, our main character is really unlikable, we better shoe-horn in some moments that prove he's not all bad.

And of course, since it's Showtime, the cursing and sex are everywhere. Kaan "angry bangs" his ex-wife, the consulting team hits up a strip club, there is a bathroom lesbian encounter, etc. It feels gratuitous, particularly the lesbian scene and the ensuing confrontation over it.

The saving graces of the show are that Cheadle is a wonderful actor and, even given his David Mamet archetype of a character, he is charismatic to watch. Kristen Bell is also a stand-out, though we aren't sure we like the show playing the two of them for sexual tension.

We watched the second episode and definitely had a better opinion of the show after that one than we did having only watched the premiere. The premiere had a lot of Kaan breaking the fourth wall "Ferris Bueller"-style (with everyone else in the scene freezing, like on "Saved by the Bell") to talk about consulting. That gimmick was distracting, annoying and not that funny. The second episode does that a lot less, which is nice. [ ETA: The third episode is back to egregious use of this technique.] The second episode does feature a weird Cat Deeley-related subplot (yes, really) that was needless and dumb.

"House of Lies" certainly fits in with the Sunday night lineup of flawed male characters on Showtime, as it is sandwiched between "Shameless's" William H. Macy and "Californication's" David Duchovny. However, "House of Lies" lacks the heart of "Shameless" and Kaan lacks the likability of Duchovny's Hank Moody, which means we care very little about the characters after two episodes.

In order for us to keep watching, we need to care about Kaan and his band of greedy consultants, even as they do bad things. "The Sopranos" and "Sons of Anarchy" are masterful at making us love and root for bad people, but "House of Lies" isn't there. We'll give it one or two more episodes and then we're probably out.

"House of Lies" premieres Sunday night, Jan. 8, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.

Photo/Video credit: Showtime