Much like the team of management consultants it portrays, House of Lies is very difficult to pin down. The Showtime series, which follows the antics of a group of corporate con men, is tonally all over the place: part zany sex comedy, part scathing social satire, part heartfelt family drama. That would be a great combination if the pieces didn't feel so incongruous, though they're taped together with such a great performance by Don Cheadle that it becomes excusable.
In much the same way, House of Lies is half-entertaining and half-frustrating. Cheadle's performance is easily the best part of the show. His fast-talking Marty Kaan is fun to watch when he's winning, but things really get good when the rug is pulled out from under him and he's forced out of his comfort zone. Cheadle can be charismatic even when he's despicable, and that's really the primary appeal of House of Lies as a whole.
But where House of Lies fails is the writing, which can be accused of cobbling together plenty of television tropes instead of presenting anything truly new and exciting. Stop me if you've seen this before: the charismatic-yet-damaged antihero is haunted by a traumatic childhood, which is an obstacle in him having a meaningful relationship with his obviously attention-deprived son. Or what about the ambitious businesswoman who shies away from the only healthy relationship in her life because she's afraid of commitment? Or the numerous uncomfortable scenes in which someone is perpetually on the verge of discovering a particularly awkward secret, but they always seem to turn away at the last moment? It's stuff we've all seen before, shoved together in ways that don't quite seem to fit.
Besides Cheadle, the show's big strong point is its visual style. Some might accuse it gimmickry, but the show's occasional winking sound cues and quick cuts are at the very least distracting from the show's less-original elements.
So, as the first season of House of Lies arrives on DVD this Tuesday, December 18, the question remains: is it worth the buy? As always, that depends. House of Lies isn't a great show, or even a particularly memorable one. Those who love Showtime's other half-hour dramedies (Nurse Jackie, Weeds) will probably find plenty to love here. Others who aren't fans of the genre will at least find Cheadle's fantastic performance enjoyable, though whether that's worth the $30 the DVD will cost is up to you.
House of Lies: The First Season hits shelves this Tuesday, December 18. The show will return for its second season next month on Showtime.