A comedy that's as hollow as its subject

House of Lies is a new sitcom making light of corporate greed. But where's its own soul, asks Sarah Hughes

As pitches go it can't have been an easy one: "So our new show, House of Lies, is about a bunch of cut-throat management consultants and the way in which they con corporate clients out of money each week. As the strapline has it: Meet the One Per Cent sticking it to the One Per Cent. Yes, that's right, it's a half-hour comedy about wealthy slicksters screening right in the middle of one of the biggest economic depressions America has experienced. Good joke, huh?"

The answer is er, no, not really. House of Lies, due to air on Sky Atlantic this year, has many things going for it: an outstanding cast, including the charismatic Don Cheadle as the company's fast-talking boss, Marty Kaan, a devious expert in the art of the soft-sell; some genuinely funny one-liners; slick cinematography; and a willingness to take risks with the format (Marty often "breaks the fourth wall", addressing himself directly to the television audience to explain what certain terminology means, or how his team intend to pull off their con).

All of those plus points are undermined by the hollowness at the show's core. Plenty of sitcoms get by with unlikeable characters (indeed shows such as The Thick of It and, to an extent, Peep Show, are all the better for their refusal to make their lead characters empathetic), but House of Lies is asking us not simply to laugh at this bunch of chancers, but to admire them for the way in which they rip people off.

And we're hardly talking modern-day Robin Hoods here: writer Matthew Carnahan, working from Martin Kihn's book House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time, is keen to illustrate just how addicted to the trappings of success his gang are, detailing their obsession with everything from the right suits to the right women. It's a tactic that works against the show, making it seem like something which should have aired at the height of the boom era rather than in today's more downbeat and insecure times.

Then there's the sex. US cable channels are notorious for their obsession with baring flesh, but the problem here is the joyless way the characters interact. As the New Yorker's TV critic Emily Nussbaum was moved to comment: "House of Lies is too dirty for me. And I liked early Californication, Secret Diary of a Call Girl and the graveyard scene in Sabbath's Theater."

What Nussbaum and fellow critics of the show are taking issue with is the desultory nature of the show's sexual relationships. They may be played for laughs, but far too many of the show's scenes, in particular those with female lead Kristen Bell, carry with them the atmosphere of a city boys' night out at a strip club. There's the sense that the writers are sniggering at their own daring even as they reduce sex to a soulless trade between blank individuals.

Yet even this could work if there were a sense that Carnahan was making a point about the hollow victory that comes with selling your soul. Instead, it seems as though the man behind the short-lived and equally sleazy Courtney Cox sitcom Dirt (about a loathsome tabloid reporter and her vile photographer sidekick) is far too enamoured of the hustle to examine what lies beneath the smooth talk.

Ultimately, the show's biggest negative is its subject matter. There is a place on television now for a smart-mouthed takedown of consultancy culture that goes beyond Up in the Air's gentle prodding or Margin Call's soapy thrills, but House of Lies squanders the opportunity. Instead, it prefers to skate on the surface of its subject matter, making smug, self-referential jokes where it could have aimed bullets at corporate America's core.


House of Lies airs on Sky Atlantic later this year