If the business-consulting firm Galweather & Stearn, featured in the new Showtime half-hour comedy series House of Lies, were asked to undertake a thorough review of all the shows on the channel’s roster, it might point out a certain overreliance on the anti-hero. The network’s product range is unusually stacked toward following the exploits of misfits and sociopaths made sympathetic by their raging against the machine. These protagonists have various degrees of redeemability: Homeland’s Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), the recently disgraced CIA agent and secret manic-depressive with a sordid sex life, who goes rogue to expose an American hero as a sleeper for Al Qaeda; Dexter’s serial killer and Miami police blood-spatter expert Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), who sates his bloodlust with perps who’ve dodged punishment thanks to procedural incompetence; painkiller-addicted Nurse Jackie (Edie Falco), who has been known to forge organ-donor records to save patients’ lives. They may be reckless, but they manage to survive on their wits, an uncanny sense of timing, and, well, series renewals.
And now there’s Don Cheadle’s brazen management consultant Marty Kaan, who charms his way into the boardrooms of big, exploitative corporations—and who likes them these days?—to plunder, both financially and sexually. Marty and his clients portray the one percent at their very worst: “You look at the pilot and go, ‘Man, these guys helped these assholes be happier and keep doing their business,’ ” says Cheadle. “But they give themselves the out that ‘We’re not the ones doing it. They’re doing it. We’re just helping them do it better.’ ” House of Lies is based on a satirical exposé of the same name, by a white B-school grad and former TV writer named Martin Kihn, whose other book is a faux memoir–self-help volume titled Asshole. The timing, between Occupy Wall Street and the presidential election, couldn’t be better for a sendup of corporate amorality and the kind of M.B.A. capitalism Mitt Romney, at Bain & Co., helped perfect.
But Cheadle brings subtlety to a character that could have gotten away with leaning on its topicality. While Marty appears to be a man without principles—as aggressive and predatory as any of his mostly white alpha-male colleagues (he preaches “dissing” the client “like a pretty girl so she’ll want you … to make them think they’re almost perfect”)—as an African-American man, he is going to be held to a different standard. (Okay, there’s some political resonance there, too.) Marty has to occasionally overcompensate and, in one instance, even has to step back altogether and let his white female protégée take over and close the deal with a racist client. His negotiations with race, and, inevitably, racism, lend nuance to what could be a too easily detestable character.
Casting Cheadle was Showtime president David Nevins’s idea, according to the actor. “He called my agent and said, ‘We’ve got this part, Don’s the guy I see.’ I don’t know why; I didn’t ask,” Cheadle says. “I came in, and he said, ‘I think you can be funny.’ And when I read it, I was really shocked, because the type of humor is how I clown around with my friends already, the sort of edgy, sardonic, everything is on the table to make fun of, nobody and nothing is safe.”
To keep Marty in check, the creator Matthew Carnahan has managed to strike a balance, having him appear at once unthreatening and audacious. Marty is a master manipulator, which serves him well in the workplace—indeed, he’s something of a savant. (As an aside: Is anyone on TV bad at their jobs these days? Not if it’s a high-status gig. But feel free to be a bad waitress, or a crappy paper salesman or receptionist, or an ennui-ridden local-government intern, or, a lazy, crazy comic on a low-rated sketch-comedy show.) But his personal life is a business he can’t get a handle on. He persistently hits on his colleague Jeannie (Kristen Bell), one of the four members of his team. He regularly, co-dependently, “hate-bangs” his ace-consultant ex-wife, Monica (Dawn Olivieri), even as they compete for clients and battle for custody of their 12-year-old son, Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.). And Roscoe has taken to cross-dressing and is determined to nab the part of Sandy in his school production of Grease.
This is a challenge to Marty’s carefully calibrated manly swagger, and he’s convinced his son’s flamboyance is simply meant to provoke him. “Is he questioning his gender?” asks Cheadle. “In Marty’s opinion, he’s trying to get a rise out of me. I think the question is still open, as it often is for kids at that age. The sexuality may be something that isn’t his choice, but is what he’s doing a choice? I think it’s more interesting to make it more a question than an answer.” Marty’s relationship with his son may be the most compelling aspect of House of Lies; despite his inability to grasp Roscoe’s gender presentation, Marty never wavers from being protective of him. He defends Roscoe against anyone who threatens him and his freedom of expression, including the tween’s abrasive mother, who is horrified by him and not afraid to say so.
“Marty is trying to be a good dad, and he wants to be involved in his son’s life and be a positive force, but he doesn’t know how to do it,” says Cheadle. “If this were a multinational corporation, I think I would dive right in, but with my son, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do.” To borrow a consulting term, he has no best practices for this situation.