Showtime’s “House of Lies” (airing Sundays at 10pm) works hard at its cynicism. The effort it puts into its scathing portrayal of jaded, sexually voracious, substance-abusing management consultants traveling around the country to bleed money out of corporations can be seriously tiring, given the contempt the characters have for their clients and each other.
The show never decides whether it wants us to be disgusted with Marty Kaan and his team or nihilistically delighted by them, but at least the cast is a pleasure to watch, particularly Don Cheadle as Marty and Kristen Bell as Jeannie Van Der Hooven, his protégée (as long as it’s convenient to him).
Beneath the misanthropy lies some interesting undercurrents, especially in how “House of Lies” treats race. Cheadle’s one of lamentably few African-American leads on the small screen and in the show he’s often the only person of color in the room. “House of Lies” isn’t centered around or explicitly about Marty’s ethnicity, but it doesn’t ignore it, either — it’s just another factor in his life, a plus and a minus.
In one episode he passes along being the lead on a pitch to Jeannie after their client makes his prejudices clear; in others it works for him, with people feeling uncomfortable about feeling uncomfortable around him, or going out of their way to impress him, or deciding he’s attractively exotic.
Marty’s well aware that he’s the rare if not lone African-American in his circle. In Sunday’s episode, Marty, at the request of his boss, reluctantly attends the company recruitment party; he spots James (Leslie Odom Jr.) amongst the otherwise white Harvard Business School grads being courted. “I think we found your prom date, Mr. All-Star Quarterback,” Jeannie teases, and indeed Skip (Richard Schiff) quickly introduces James to Marty, who jokes that they already know each other from “the black people meetings.”
Marty offers James advice, but also warily watches as the younger man takes all too well to charming the senior partners. Marty has never doubted his talents or how good he is at his job, but he’s also difficult and tough to work with, and is aware that others may perceive him as having to compete for a single slot at the company as a token representative.
It’s a feeling echoed in the way that Jeannie takes a dig at one of the few women at the event, a pretty girl whose flirtatious spiel she cuts into with a math question. Both characters find themselves defending their territory in ways that their teammates Clyde Oberholt (Ben Schwartz) and Doug Guggenheim (Josh Lawson) wouldn’t, which may explain why the two have such a close, if brambly, bond.
In the end, Marty sabatoges the new kid’s chances under the pretense that he’s teaching him a lesson about trust, while Jeannie’s swipe at the girl is undercut by Clyde secretly coming to her rescue and affirming Jeannie’s fears that she doesn’t have the goods to back up her looks, but will get far on the latter. And between the two of them, they sum up an unspoken fear: the quality that makes you different can also make you more more interchangeable because it’s something people use to define you.