Writer Matthew Carnahan seems to have parental suicide on his mind. After making it a major part of Lucy Spiller’s background on his sadly short-lived FX drama Dirt, he has added it to the backstory of Marty Kaan on Showtime’s House of Lies. The abrupt death of a parent in both cases is supposed to explain the dark deeds and questionable morals of Carnahan’s main characters, but something has been lost in switching the genders.
Courtney Cox’s tabloid editor was a bitchy, scary delight, prone to masturbating—her father’s suicide left her so lonely!—in between blackmailing Hollywood celebrities and fighting to stay on top of the entertainment cesspool. Don Cheadle’s management consultant guru, however, just seems like a self-destructive asshole. He is tender and supportive towards his gender-bending son (who auditions for and lands the role of Sandy in a school production of Grease) but he’s also a wreck of a man—his mother’s suicide left him so lonely!—whose only glimmer of humanity comes at the soulful, silent final shots of Cheadle’s blank, staring face.
There’s comedy in watching Marty behave badly even as each half hour episode quickly falls into a predictable rhythm, but House of Lies has little that’s fresh to it. There’s some distracting, trendy editing in which everything freezes so that Marty can explain to the audience some new piece of management consultant jargon; familiar supporting faces that are instantly recognizable from previous recurring roles or guest spots (not to mention a woefully underutilized Kristen Bell, in her first starring television role since Veronica Mars); and there is a Don Draper moment to each half hour, in which Marty or one of his team somehow pull off a Hail Mary and win an enormous pay day.
The anti-hero genre was looking pretty wan even when Dirt premiered back in 2007, and Carnahan has found no new tricks in the meantime. Marty hate fucks his ex-wife, parties till dawn with a stripper, head butts a client and steals a car from a valet—but he’s really empty inside, guys! He deserves to be coddled! He’s so brilliant at what he does that the big drama of the first season is whether or not his bad behavior and inability not to burn bridges will cost him his job. But it’s hard sympathizing with a bastard who makes seven figures from telling other bastards how to profit off the misfortune of others (the pilot’s clients are particularly loathsome). The comedy is pitch black and often painfully funny, but ultimately we’re laughing at ourselves.
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