Why Isn’t House of Lies Awesome?
Don Cheadle. Hot sex. Great supporting players. Showrunner Matthew Carnahan discusses where the show’s gone wrong—and how it can still right itself.
Photograph by Showtime.
When House of Lies premiered in January, it seemed primed to follow Homeland as a buzzy Showtime hit. It featured Don Cheadle, a bona fide movie star, supported by favorites from Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), Parks and Recreation (Ben Schwartz), and The Wire (Glynn Turman). And with the Occupy movement still in the news, the show, set in the world of high-stakes management consultants, seemed perfectly timed to offer a glimpse inside the boardrooms (and bedrooms) of the 1 percent.
Instead, with the season two-thirds over, it hasn’t cracked the cultural conversation. I suspect that’s because it’s trying to do too much. It’s a sex comedy. It’s a satirical look at corruption in the business world. It’s a workplace drama about a group of people willing to sacrifice their souls for success. And it’s a tragic portrait of a guy fighting to keep his family together. A person could get whiplash watching this show. In an interview, creator Matthew Carnahan agreed that he had tried to cram too much into each episode. Still, it’s better to share the Los Angeles Lakers’ problems than to be the Charlotte Bobcats of cable TV—and just like the Lakers, the series can be spectacular when it focuses on its superstar.
Don Cheadle’s Marty Kaan is the manic genius at the center of the show. He’s a single dad who lives with his retired psychiatrist father (Turman) and his gender-experimenting 10-year-old son, Roscoe (the amazing Donis Leonard Jr.), who does things with skirts, scarves, and sequined UGGs that would turn an FIT freshman green with envy. Marty understands that he has to let Roscoe figure things out for himself, but the rest of the world is eager to judge and pigeonhole him, so Marty often has to interrupt his work to fight for Roscoe’s rights.
Marty earns his seven-figure income by spending four days a week on the road, leading his team of analysts to assignments all over the country. The “pod”—“a chick, a Jew, and a WASP” as one client described Jeannie, Clyde, and Doug, played by Bell, Schwartz, and Josh Lawson, respectively—is his work family. Marty is the daddy each team member is desperate to impress; Jeannie isn’t quite the mommy, though Marty tells her there’s an 87 percent chance they’ll sleep together; and Clyde and Doug are like a couple of teenage boys, all testosterone and teasing. Just like a family, the characters “aren’t always great to one another,” Carnahan told me. “They’re deeply troubled people, but they have each other, and there’s some comfort for them in that.”
Unfortunately, Carnahan is trying to squeeze too many themes and characters into each 28-minute episode, leaving everything and everybody frustratingly underdeveloped. Every week, there’s a business challenge to solve, a sexual dilemma to resolve, personal issues and family problems to face, and career ladders to scale. There’s simply not enough time for it all. Take Clyde: He teased Doug remorselessly after the latter spent an evening with a “tranny,” but he’s like a cool, supportive uncle to gender-questioning Roscoe. The show is so frenetic that it’s impossible to tell if Clyde’s character is complex and nuanced or if the writing is confusing and contradictory. A few months ago, I griped that The Good Wife had introduced more genuinely compelling characters than it could effectively use. House of Lies has a more fundamental problem: It has cast more amazing actors than it has had time to develop into convincing characters.
When I put this complaint to Carnahan, he conceded that in trying to launch the show, he’d suffered from “a kind of dilettantism,” of wanting to do a little bit of everything. “I’ve got Glynn Turman—just a great actor of our time—I want to put him in. I’ve got this really interesting dynamic with three generations of men, very different from one another; I really want to explore that. There’s this slice of the business world that people haven’t really seen that could be really interesting to dig into. I want to explore all of them.” House of Lies has already been renewed, and Carnahan hopes that next season the episodes will be a little less frantic. “By then, at least, the audience will be aware of all the other aspects of the show, so we won’t have to do quite such a juggling act,” he says.
So let me suggest a few balls Carnahan could safely drop. He is altogether too enamored of the banter between Clyde and Doug. Schwartz and Lawson have great chemistry, but their shtick has become repetitive. And I never thought I would say this about a Showtime production, but there’s too much random sex. It’s great to see a variety of encounters—exploitive, disturbing, and sometimes even sweet—but every road trip’s turning into a fetish of the week. Marty should spend less time with strangers in sex dungeons and more time with April (Megalyn Echikunwoke), his smoking hot 25-year-old stripper-turned-law-student cop-killer girlfriend.
Let’s see more of Jeannie, whom Carnahan described as “this lost post-feminist character who is doing everything she can to grab a little bit of power in a world where she is not empowered.” She hasn’t yet told her fellow pod-members that she’s engaged. We see her removing her engagement ring each time she joins them at the airport, but we don’t know why she’s so conflicted about marriage—though as Carnahan points out, tying the knot might seem like a career “death knell” to a woman in the all-in world of consulting.
Most important, House of Lies needs to make better use of its star. It’s not just that African-American leads are virtually nonexistent on television these days, it’s that Don Cheadle is holding nothing back in his balls-out portrayal of Marty as a brilliant but self-destructive jerk. Carnahan told me that when Cheadle was cast, “We got to make an African-American lead who’s not the ‘noble negro.’ He’s the son of a bitch at the center of the show. It seemed important to honor that, to not let his race dictate his goodness or lack thereof. We get to have a black anti-hero, and we get to make him a real douchebag.”
Marty Kaan is indeed a cynical, cold-hearted douche bag, but he pays the price for siding with heartless profit-takers. In the pilot, he hatched a cunning plan that would allow corrupt mortgage lenders to bank their generous bonuses even as former clients lost their homes by the thousands, but in doing so, he set in motion an acquisition that could end his career When he recommended that a pharmaceutical company ignore unfavorable findings about a new drug, it ultimately cost his firm a multimillion-dollar account. Marty is now fighting to hold onto his job and his son, and he could easily lose them both. He moves in a selfish, advancement-oriented world in which no one can be trusted, and where everyone is always working the angles, working the numbers, working. House of Lies is a portrait of the 1 percent at work—endless, exhausting, soul-destroying work—and it is terrifying.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.