The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Television Collision: The Moral Corruption of House of Lies

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

It’s that time of year – again – when another round of new shows is being rolled out: midseason. For some reason this time around it seems the networks saved the most interesting formats for the midseason cycle instead of a Fall 2011 launch, so it’s time to giddy on up and welcome the new.
(I know many TV viewers are hesitant to jump into new shows, because there is always the danger they’ll go away before they ever really get going, but I remain on the side of “No risk, no fun.”)

Pay TV channel Showtime is rolling out the second season of Shameless, the fifth season of Californication and its latest addition to the “Train Wreck Human Beings Club”, House of Lies. If you are familiar with Showtime’s latest brand of shows, you’ll know exactly what to expect from House of Lies – debauchery, sex, drugs, sociopaths, and no consequences for anyone ever – and you won’t be disappointed. The show centers on a team of high-profile management consultants, who basically sell their souls to the devil in order to get their clients what they need.

Despite the all-star cast (Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Greg Germann) doing a stellar job in the pilot episode that aired this past Sunday, I couldn’t help but think about how fatigued I am of Showtime’s brand of TV and how utterly unlikable House of Lies truly is. To clarify, House of Lies is a well-made show, there is nothing to complain about in terms of production value or acting, it’s the subject matter and the characters within the show that repel me.

My fatigue of Showtime’s branding is, however, directly related to the moral repulsion I felt while watching House of Lies. For a while now Showtime has specialized in depicting characters that have “gone off the rails” or who are deeply flawed. From David Duchovny’s sex addicted, alcoholic, cocaine-snorting writer Hank Moody in Californication to Edie Falco’s pill-popping nurse Jackie Peyton in Nurse Jackie, characters on Showtime are anything but angels. What these shows try to do though, and whether they succeed in this is a highly subjective point, is to still make these characters relatable and likable to the audience by giving them redeeming qualities. Hank Moody and Jackie Peyton both care fervently about their kids and although they let them down time and time again, they always do their best to make up for it. Jackie, furthermore, is a nurse and a damn good one at that, so how bad can she really be, right?

Suffice it to say that these types of shows lose their punch and steam when the central characters never actually have to face any consequences for the illicit, illegal and irresponsible behavior they display, so there is really no point to these shows other than putting flawed characters on the screen for “shock value” and “deviation from expectation” alone (more the case in Californication and Shameless than in Nurse Jackie, but she also goes scot-free). And for the most part I don’t really mind so much that there aren’t consequences, because Jackie is a good mom and a good nurse and I feel for her and Hank Moody is an artist with issues and all the women who fall for his crap and sleep with him five minutes after they meet him make their own bed. But this all changes when you center a typical Showtime show of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” around a group of people that represent precisely what is going wrong in society these days.

These top-tier management consultants in House of Lies are morally corrupt in a way that cannot be redeemed by showing them care about their kid (which Don Cheadle’s character fails at anyway) or being good at their job. Let me demonstrate my point by recapping what happens in the pilot episode: Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle) and his team are asked to present a new marketing campaign to one of the biggest banking conglomerates in America in order to restore their public image after they lost their clients billions of dollars, their houses and their jobs following the collapse of the stock market (you remember Lehman Brothers and the crapshoot that came after, right?). What this bank conglomerate wants is a way to justify the fact that they keep paying themselves millions of dollars in bonuses, while their clients are camped outside in cardboard boxes because they lost their homes because of what the bank did to them.
Marty’s solution: initiate a “Loan Amnesty Program”, to which anyone can apply and they won’t have to pay back their loans until they are back on their feet. The catch: about half of the estimated 17 million applicants will be disqualified for being eligible, then another 8.8 million will be eliminated in processing (half of which due to “good old inertia and lack of follow-through”), then there’ll be more technical DQ’s and basically the bank won’t have to give anyone anything. “The classic bump and grab.”  

So tell me, how is 99% of America supposed to sympathize with the consultants that come up with this “image campaign” for a bank conglomerate like this? While the consultants make seven figures a year themselves?  The only viewers, who would rejoice at Marty Kaan’s team successfully coming up with a marketing scheme that lets the bank look good while it can continue to operate as usual, are precisely those viewers who would benefit from something like that in real life, because they are top bankers or marketing consultants or filthy rich themselves. Basically the entitled 1% the Occupy Movement has been protesting against for months now.

Marty and his team don’t swoop in to save the day here, like Nurse Jackie sometimes does – in spite of being high on pain killers. In fact, Marty and his team just ruined the day for 99% of Americans. The fact that Marty endorses his son “testing the limits of gender identification” and lobbies for him to be allowed to play the part of Sandy in his high school’s production of Grease, can’t redeem him from the fact that he just successfully came up with a plan to screw the average American over. Again.
(Plus, Marty doesn’t even make it to his son’s performance. He is busy screwing another student’s mom in the parking lot. So much for his parenting skills.)

I tried to think of House of Lies as a more explicit, modern version of Mad Men in order to make some sense of its concept. Mad Men, too, gives viewers a peek into a high-profile industry that is universally fascinating (we are all influenced by advertising, and we are mostly aware of it, too) and somewhat elite and secretive. However, the temporal distance make some of the techniques and tricks the Mad Men use easy to see through for modern day viewers, and the Mad Men were never really selling people anything evil or trying to blatantly rip people off. I think the most evil thing I ever saw Don Draper sell were Lucky Strike cigarettes, but he based his campaign on “scientific findings” we now know to be incorrect, so it’s easy to smile at these depictions of “marketing in the old days”.

However, what Marty Kaan and Co. are selling does not have the benefit of nostalgia. In a world where good and evil aren’t always easily defined anymore, I am fairly certain most people would agree that greedy bankers fall squarely in the category of “despicable” and the people helping them to justify and maintain their greedy ways are less than one step behind them. So unless House of Lies chronicles how Marty Kaan slowly sees the error of his ways, gives up his consulting job and donates a good chunk of his money to charity, I don’t see myself caring about the characters in House of Lies one bit.
House of Lies will just have to settle for being one of those shows people love to hate. And it surely depressed the hell out of me with its message of utter moral corruption.

Author: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

Born in Germany, lived in the US, now in the UK. Always taking my love for TV and writing with me. Life participator. Blogger. Gaming enthusiast.

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