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House of Lies: Gods of Dangerous Financial Instruments (Pilot)

Showtime’s latest half-hour comedy, House of Lies tells the story of the number-two management consulting firm in the United States: a band of plucky heroes who cheat the big guys out of money and have fun doing it. Starring Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) and Don Cheadle (almost everything else), with Ben Schwartz (Jean-Ralphio of Parks and Rec) in a supporting role, House of Lies has a strong pedigree and lots of potential. It almost lives up to it.

The show is fast-paced and brash. I watched a screener online and all the “bad” words were bleeped, all the nudity fuzzed out. Nothing like fuzziness and bleeping to make a girl realize just how raunchy Showtime likes to be. The language is appropriate, though: like David Mamet after he’s been slowed down by too many drinks and not enough protein. (Carbs and teetotaling are for liberals.)

The quick, naughty wit and obvious intelligence of the characters and the actors who play them are this show’s biggest draws. Don Cheadle’s character, Marty Kaan, is the focus of the pilot, and we get a fair amount of his relationship with his plucky son, sociopathic ex-wife, steadfast father, and even some pop-psychologizing by the business psychologist played by Bell. That character, Jeannie van der Hooven (seriously), is less finely drawn: obviously comfortable playing by the rules of the good ol’ boys’ club, Jeannie doesn’t seem to inquire into her own motivation for hanging out with the types of guys who assume a strip club will be fun for everyone.

The plot is…interesting? Well, not really. The team wants to get an account with a massive financial company of the sort that are responsible for the sub-prime mortgage crisis. The consultants talk about revenge against the big finance companies as a motivation: ripping off the companies that can afford to be ripped off with over-priced and useless consultations.

In fact, the characters reiterate that point repeatedly. “These guys are evil!” they say, as they charge $1000 sushi dinners to their expense account. The team taps into the despair caused by the mortgage insurance shell-game, irresponsible lending, and bloated management salaries in order to make a hefty profit and fund their own high-priced lifestyles. House of Lies skirts the ramifications of those Robin Hood claims, though. One character (a bad guy) points out that the people who borrowed inappropriately to buy McMansions and Escalades on installment plan are responsible for their own tragedy; the lenders just lent. How are the lenders, then, really different from our heroes, the consultants who sell equally worthless product to people who think they want it and need it? Ultimately, it’s all about high-stakes players trying to get money at someone else’s expense.

House of Lies wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Watching smart, brilliant people con others is undeniably fun for those of us who enjoy a bit of sadism on our screens. But HoL doesn’t want us to associate the plucky heroes with the “bad guys” or the “one percent,” even if that’s who they really are. Asking us to root for the bad guys is one thing—we’ve all done it, and its part of the allure of fiction that we can take pleasure in someone else’s evil. (I’m lookin’ at you, Ben Linus, season one Damon Salvatore, and Angelus. And you, Milton’s Satan. You rascals!) But HoL asks us to pretend that the bad guys are really good, hoping we won’t notice that the consultants mouth Occupy platitudes while telling the financial firms how to scam the little guy one more time. That’s a moral house of cards that might not stand up for more than a few episodes.

Conclusions? It’s extremely watchable, mostly for Bell’s and Cheadle’s quick wits. Maybe, like Chuck and Homeland, this will just be one of those shows where I have to put the political criticism on pause in order to really enjoy it. Or, maybe, House of Lies will start to luxuriate in its own brash, lying, down-and-dirty potential.

Three of out four stripper-wives.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

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