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A Merciless And Profane Black Comedy From Showtime With Don Cheadle In The Role Of His Life
on October 10, 2012
Without a doubt, Showtime's "House of Lies" was one of my most eagerly awaited programs of 2012. Headlined by Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell, the previews for this blistering sitcom looked bawdy, over-the-top, and merciless. There's nothing that I enjoy more than brutal satire, dark humor, and pushing the boundaries of traditional television. So my expectations were through the roof. And for the most part, I was completely satisfied (if not instantly blown away) with the end result. By being on Showtime, "House of Lies" definitely makes the most of its adult situations with outrageous language, unrepentant viciousness, and frank sexual discussions and partnerships. In many ways, though, I felt "House of Lies" trying too hard to be provocative. Everything is done at such extremes, the program rarely settles enough to get you to actually care about its protagonists. They are a questionable bunch, to be sure, but I'd have appreciated a few more grounded moments amidst the mayhem to make the show feel a bit more well rounded. Don't get me wrong. I still thoroughly enjoyed this decidedly brutal comedy, it just lacked the fine tuning necessary to make it one of TV's best.
At its most successful, "House of Lies" skewers business culture, office politics, and the cutthroat nature of getting ahead at any cost. Cheadle plays a ruthless business consultant whose team includes Bell, Ben Schwartz, and Josh Lawson. This quartet is the backbone of the show and each episode showcases them finessing the art of the deal using unscrupulous tactics. The role of the business consultant can be varied, but essentially the team is looking to be hired to provide the outside expertise on any number of topics involving efficiency. They will do anything to secure the job and whatever it takes to keep the client satisfied. Although heightened for maximum humor, "House of Lies" actually paints a pretty convincing portrait of this environment! The show, as it progresses, also deals with changes within Cheadle's own firm that may compromise his position as a top dog earner. In these business negotiations, the camera often freezes the action so that Cheadle can school the viewer on the latest manipulation or corporate doublespeak. The dialogue itself is smart, witty, profane, and unexpectedly cutting. It is certainly not for someone with a sensitive constitution.
Cheadle is clearly having the time of his life. Completely unrestrained, he chews the scenery in every take and is wickedly funny. Bell, as an actress, seems to be finding her way and I wish someone would stop trying to make her the next Katherine Heigl in films. She was designed for edgier fare, and this absolutely suits what she should be doing. Smarmy Ben Schwartz gets some of the best lines (and he's perfecting this kind of jerk role) and his childish competitions with Lawson provide some of the show's most memorable moments. And as the dramatic stakes rise with Cheadle's future hanging in the balance, great character actors Griffen Dunne and Greg Germann get a chance to shine as corporate bigwigs. Seriously, anything having to do with a workplace setting really works.
I'm not as convinced, though, by the elements meant to humanize Cheadle. His home life is molded in the only-on-TV model with one of the most precocious, offbeat, and wizened TV kids that you're likely to encounter. I never much believed or cared about the aspects of his private life which never held the zing of the livelier segments. They also try to establish a romantic entanglement, but as she moves in almost immediately to raise his kid--nothing feels very organic. His ex-wife is played with ferocity by Dawn Olivieri (who is also a rival consultant) and the two are constantly at war. I like Olivieri, but this might be one plot point too many. When we're stuck in Cheadle's home life, we miss being at work! Although I didn't always love "House of Lies," I appreciated the chances that it took. As an adult comedy, it's not perfect. But it has huge potential, a great cast, and doesn't dumb itself down for mass consumption. My prediction: if you love the show, you'll really love it and if you don't, you'll really dislike it. But definitely try it for something original! KGHarris, 7/12.