The Showtime series “House of Lies” — based on a memoir by the same name — understandably drops the subtitle “How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time.” That’s perhaps in part because, beyond being unwieldy, the business-insider aspect has been downplayed, the better to emphasize the program’s tawdrier elements. This makes the series guilty fun — thanks primarily to star Don Cheadle as a fast-talking, ruthless consultant — if not especially enlightening about the industry the book laid bare. Indeed, in keeping with what Showtime classifies as comedies, “Lies” has a different kind of “laying” and “bare” in mind.
Although the resulting half-hour (a little longer than that for the premiere) isn’t as smart as it might have been — falling well short of the movie “Up in the Air,” to which it bears a thematic resemblance — the program is moderately entertaining and very much in keeping with the tone of “Californication,” which also counts director Stephen Hopkins among its producers.
Cheadle (doubling as an exec producer) plays Martin Kaan, who announces at the outset that he earns a cool seven-figure salary to, as he explains it, “use indecipherable jargon” and “talk people into thinking they really, really need us.” One of the devices the show employs — presumably to convey some of the book’s revelations, as well as to translate the business-ese — involves freezing the action, while Martin discusses terms or tactics that are tools of his trade.
Martin spends most of his time with three younger colleagues, played by Ben Schwartz and Josh Lawson, a duo essentially providing the management-consultant equivalent of “Beavis and Butt-head”-style comic relief; and Kristen Bell, who endeavors to prove at every turn she’s one of the boys.
Adapted by writer Matthew Carnahan (“Dirt”), the series is unpretentious regarding its aims, even with a larger serialized storyline involving a major merger as its narrative backbone. At times, all that feels like window dressing to get to the oh-no-they-didn’t moments, like Martin bringing a stripper masquerading as his wife to a business dinner (in perhaps the premiere’s funniest sequence).
Other elements prove uneven. Casting of smaller roles is strong, with Richard Schiff as Martin’s boss and Greg Germann as a potential client. By contrast, there’s a tiresome subplot involving Martin’s flamboyant young son — who wants to play Sandy in a school production of “Grease” — creating a gay-youth riff that feels mimeographed from other Showtime’s half-hours. Ditto for Martin’s ball-busting ex-wife (Dawn Olivieri), while Glynn Turman is under-used as his dad.
By appearing more preoccupied with underpants than pocketbooks, the series meshes neatly with the aforementioned “Californication” and “Shameless.” And since Showtime already has its trophy shows, “House of Lies” can afford to be less about accolades than amusement — more lowbrow than high finance, with Cheadle as a first-rate maestro of bullshit.
If that’s not quite a Triple-A rating, at least that mild appraisal of its assets is no lie.