House of Lies, Showtime's newest comedy, is the worst new show I've seen this year. That might not make it the worst new show of the year; I haven't seen either of those shows about how hard modern American life is for straight white males, or that other show about how hard modern American life is for straight white males that also includes improbable cross-dressing, because I know those shows are bad without having to suffer through them. But House of Lies stars Don Cheadle, and Ben Schwartz (Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation), and Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars from Veronica Mars), and it's on a premium channel that theoretically has less restrictions and is able to take the medium of television in new and exciting directions. The reality is, it's on Showtime, America's channel for people saying "fuck" and also for tits, and holy christ it is terrible. Its crimes are as follows:
Tits and Fuck.
Showtime is allowed to show nudity (female nudity, obviously, and maybe a male ass cheek as a punchline or something) and broadcast whatever foul language they want. This sounds like it'd be freeing but apparently all of Showtime's writers and showrunners are forever trapped in a lucite prison of FuckTits from which there is no escape. I have the total tit count at 12 in the pilot episode, which I should add is only 30 minutes long. The first use of the word "fuck" comes at 1:30, the second at 2:45, and then I stopped counting until the first time a child says fuck (30:45). There are lots in between, though, so for all of you living in the as-yet-unreleased third Crank movie in which you cannot survive unless someone says "fuck" every 60 seconds, this is a good show for you to watch.
1. First reference to drugs: 1:35
2. First tit shot: 0:45
3. First girl-on-girl sex scene: 19:55
4. First HILARIOUS use of a risque sexual term in a public place in which everyone around stops eating their fine white-person meals and falls silent and stares at the utterer of said risque sexual term: 22:25
5. First non-ironic use of the word "panties," further made useless by the fact that this is applied to two men and one woman, the latter of whom (without getting into heteronormative undergarment theory) probably is actually wearing them: 7:08
Nobody Cares About Your Premise.
There are many jobs or situations that are inherently interesting. Drug dealer! Lawman! West Wing staffer! Doctor! Chef! Professional rich English countryperson! All interesting. House of Lies is a show about management consultants. Problem 1: nobody knows what the fuck that is. Problem 2: once they figure it out, nobody will care about it. And yet House of Lies treats the who-gives-a-shit world of management consulting like it's a secret world we've all been curious about. It gives us the structure of a typical job. It explains pay grade. It reveals what kind of person gets into this kind of work. And it defines the terms of the trade, even though the terms are not interesting or funny and actually have very obvious cognates in regular English that everyone would understand.
After someone says "We really can't afford to get counseled out on this job," Don Cheadle pauses time (yeah.) to say "Counseled out. That's consultant for 'fired.' It's not good." Let me break that down for you. That phrase adds nothing to the show. It is already useless. But it's also not hard to understand in its current form. Literally everything that is said on any British show is harder to understand than that. But okay, Don Cheadle explains that it means "fired." Fine. BUT THEN HE EXPLAINS THAT GETTING FIRED IS BAD. He defines the phrase, then defines his definition! Fuck you, Don Cheadle's writers.
As far as I can tell, this job, which nobody cares about, seems to mostly consist of "trying not to get fired" and "billing lots of outrageous expenses," which in the laziest possible way is demonstrated by having our noble leads go to a strip club. There's sort of a bigger problem here in that the show can't really decide if it's satirizing these characters, sympathizing with them, or glorifying them, Entourage-style. Really it's the latter, with a couple of nods to the former two options I guess out of recognition that in 2012, or 2011, 2010, 2009, or 2008, for that matter, it is ridiculously tone-deaf to have a show about useless bajillionaire management consultants who help despicable companies overcome their crimes to become successful enough to presumably commit more crimes and be despicable once again. But that's a bigger discussion, and I am too angry to remember any of those helpful terms I learned in my cultural studies classes in college that might be useful in discussing this, so I will keep my focus instead on how fucking awful this show is.
The show makes the mistake of giving its characters long soliloquies about business strategy, two lines into which every single viewer will be reaching for their iPhones, but which also make no sense and which would fool no reasonably intelligent humanoid businessmonster. That strategy to make one of those evil subprime mortgage lending firms a paragon of business ethics? THAT WOULD NEVER WORK. Because 1. it won't work, and 2. those businessghouls don't even want it to! They are the soulless riverbed-dredging catfish of our society. They make lots of money and they basically can't get arrested because nobody besides Matt Taibbi understands which crimes they've committed and his job is to come up with new fun similes to describe these people, not to arrest them or whatever. The strategy is obviously bullshit and nobody would ever fall for it. And yet that plan is the sole evidence we've seen that these consultant idiots are good at their job and thus the masters of the universe.
1. There are constant music and sound effects, like we're watching a Dreamworks animated picture about an anthropomorphized river otter who just wants to see the ocean even though river otters, despite their name, often live in coastal areas, which Dreamworks would know if they read Wikipedia once in awhile. When Don Cheadle tosses a cardboard sign aside, there's a whooshing sound. When a man bites into an eclair, it goes SQUISH. There is never not music playing. It is tremendously distracting.
2. At one point, in the strip club, Don Cheadle is supposed to take a shot off a stripper's ass. It sounds like the kind of thing someone who has never seen a stripper or an ass would think you would do in that situation; from a practical perspective, it seems really difficult to balance, and after a second Don Cheadle just picks the shot glass up and drinks it. You can practically hear him think "fuck this stage direction."
3. Jean-Ralphio, as he writes his name on a sign-in form, says "and this is my mobile, feel free to call." Then he literally makes one small circle and taps the paper twice with his pen. I have deduced that his phone number is "0..". Feel free to call and ask about the logic of that shit.
4. The show uses the word "paradigm" as an example of "indecipherable jargon," cribbing from Dilbert comic strips circa 1998.
5. There is an uptight blonde society woman who hates her husband, with tight pulled-back hair and a big chunky pearl necklace. Because that is a new type of character that I am definitely intrigued by.
6. Somebody crashes through a dinner table.
7. The final shot of the episode is Don Cheadle staring at himself in his bathroom mirror while shaving, in the cold fluorescent light of morning, wondering at last if the choices he's made have oh jesus fucking christ
8. Don Cheadle's son has some HILARIOUSLY ambiguous sexuality. In case you didn't understand that from his, you know, purple tights and neckerchief and miniskirt and you know what everything he's wearing is shades of purple, he does the least balletic twirl I've ever seen within the first 90 seconds of the episode. Then he mentions musicals, Olivia Newton-John, and shoe-shopping, and is catty towards another child in his children's school for small children, within the next 90 seconds. Later he will sing beautifully.
There is only one brief glimpse of Jean-Ralphio dancing. It is the most transcendent moment in the entire show. Ben Schwartz was basically hired to be, like, a successful version of Jean-Ralphio, or like what Jean-Ralphio thinks he is, except the writers of House of Lies are, as we know, really bad at their jobs, so the only time he doesn't look like a grainy photocopy of Jean-Ralphio is when he's dancing.
Veronica Mars is utterly wasted, as she has been in just about everything since Veronica Mars.
Don Cheadle, I don't really have many thoughts about him, since he has a knack for picking movies other people like and I am not interested in, but I just saw him in Ocean's 13 and now it sounds like he's doing an American accent even though I'm pretty sure he's American. All those hard growled Rs, I think. "It was harrrrd worrrrk."
Oh, Right. That.
This show fucking has a time out conceit. Don Cheadle will turn to face the camera, and the world will freeze behind him as he explains what exciting business terms like "after-work" mean. Then someone calls "TIME IN!!!," silently, and the world begins to move again. Yes, it is just like Zack Morris on Saved by the Bell. But with weirder sound effects; at one point, he calls time out and birds flying overhead freeze in mid-air. Then when time in is called, the birds continue flying, only now you can hear them flap-flap-flapping, really loudly. Clearly there are some things I don't understand about the science of freezing time in order to explain things nobody cares about.
The entire episode is available on YouTube, for free, with the tits and cursing taken out. Showtime clearly thinks that they are losing nothing by doing this; you can practically hear executives say, "Don't worry about it, bro. If they can't see the tits, they'll only watch for a minute or so. Then they'll come crawling to their cable service provider." I do not recommend watching it. It is infuriating. But here's the episode, for completeness's sake.