By Arturo R. García
It sounds like a weird complaint, but if anything threatens to be the undoing of Don Cheadle’s new show, House of Lies, it’s the fact that he’s not enough of a villain.
Though Lies officially premieres Sunday on Showtime, you can already watch it online – albeit with blurred-out profanity and people-bits. The (NSWF) episode, as well as SPOILERS, are under the cut.
Again, spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched the episode.
Based on a book by marketing mogul Martin Kihn, Lies positions Cheadle’s character, Martin Kaan, on top of his game as a particularly cutting management consultant. The job, he tells his three sidekicks, “is like dissing a really pretty girl so that she’ll want you more.”
What Martin isn’t is a Black Management Consultant, as Cheadle explained to The Wall Street Journal:
It clearly wasn’t written for an African American. I don’t know that I ever want to play those “first-black-man-to” fill-in-the-blank parts, unless it’s very interesting. They always seem to be written out of guilt. We call them “what did your daddy do [wrong]” projects. Wow, all these white people are buying this production. Their families must have owned slaves.
How did you know the character wasn’t intended to be black?
Just from what his name is and the dude it’s based off [author Martin Kihn]. When you read scripts and it describes the character, say, “John Franklin, a 25 year-old business manager,” you say, “Oh, that’s a white guy.” If it’s written for a black guy, it’ll say, “John Franklin, black, 25”. So if it’s not defined, that’s a white guy. Got it. He’s just regular. Like a flesh colored Band-Aid.
Indeed, race isn’t an issue in Kaan’s world so far; he’s less concerned with his ex-wife Monica’s (Dawn Oliveri) whiteness than with her being “a sociopath and an addict,” and better at his job than he is. What is worrying Martin is that his son Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.) is now cross-dressing and auditioning for the role of Sandra Dee in Grease.
What’s most worrying about the show, though, is how little we’re given to differentiate Lies and Martin from other TV men behaving badly. Like Burn Notice‘s Michael Westen, Martin clues us in on his professional lingo, adding a dash of Zack Morris by doing so while the action freezes behind him. Like Californication‘s Hank Moody, Martin has no trouble hooking up with women – or, in the case of Jeannie (Kristen Bell), at least inciting an intrigued gaze while wrapping up a game-saving pitch.
But through it all, Cheadle’s portrayal is inherently sympathetic – and for this kind of show, that’s probably a liability. For Lies to truly become a “subversive comedy,” we need less Don Draper out of Martin, and more (NSFW) Malcolm Tucker. Hopefully the premiere’s final scene, with Martin seemingly confronting his own demons, leads us somewhere near rock bottom quickly and convincingly.