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The Globe and Mail

Greed is no joke in dark comedy House of Lies

Would you watch a show that has been called "blisteringly vulgar and knife-edged"?

Well, you should. The show is House of Lies (TMN, Movie Central, 10 p.m.) and brace yourself – yes, the language is rough and raw, and the attitude is formidably cynical. If the coziness of Downton Abbey is your cup of tea, House of Lies is not for you. If the episodic hokum of network sitcoms is your preference, you'll be taken aback by the scathing scatological humour of this one.

By the time you read this, I will be in Los Angeles, for the mid-season presentation by U.S. broadcasters and, in the TV racket, it is the best of times. The mid-winter period of despair – about failing shows and mediocre ratings – has given way to optimism. Surely there will be a great show that galvanizes viewers and says something about the times we live in.

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House of Lies is one of those shows. It is astonishingly ambitious, funny, serious, and entertaining. Best of all, it speaks to the mood of skepticism about the way business is done in the United States, who makes the money and how they acquire it. This is a show that reflects much of what the Occupy movement is about.

We meet Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle) the hottest hustler at management-consulting firm Galweather & Stearn. When we first encounter him, there's a woman, naked except for her stilettos, asleep beside him. It turns out she's his ex-wife, passed out in a blur of drugs, and Marty's first task of the day is to get her out of his apartment before their son sees her. Later, in a lovely twist, we learn that the ex-wife, Monica (Dawn Olivieri), is also a management consultant and competes against Marty for business.

Stuff happens but, pretty soon, they stop. Then Marty addresses the camera, explaining what management consultants do. He does it in furious and colourful language, contempt drenching everything. Among the few printable remarks is this – "You have to violate every space, every molecule [of the client]so that all that's left is 'yes.'"

Marty is a weasel and he knows it. He takes companies for a ride and he loathes every client. He's conning them into spending money on ridiculous advice and the suckers pay him and his team an awful lot of money. It is no coincidence that the first client encountered on the show is a mortgage company suffering the slings and arrows of public contempt for helping bring the U.S. economy to where it is now.

Marty's team, Jeannie (Kristen Bell), Clyde (Ben Schwartz) and Doug (Josh Lawson) get daily rants from Marty about the stupidity of clients and the necessity of conning everyone to the max. They're still learning, but Marty knows it all and talks in what is probably the most foul language ever heard on TV.

The series (based on the book House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time by Martin Kihn) is one very dark comedy. It bristles with rage – rage at the self-righteous greed of businesses and consultants, rage at the ease with which vast amounts of money are made and squandered. There's a lot of sex, none of it loving. Racism is confronted head-on. As a black man, Marty is attuned to the signals but he's not angry. He's merely a tad more contemptuous of the sucker who would rather be conned by a white woman than a black man.

So, yes, it sure is "blisteringly vulgar and knife-edged" and you won't feel swell after watching it, like you might feel after chuckling at The Big Bang Theory. But you will know you've watched a rare excursion into comedy that accosts contemporary values with gusto. Sometimes a comedy is no laughing matter, and the better for it. Just watch.

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It's a busy week in Canadian TV and it will be impossible to mention everything while covering the midseason shenanigans from La-La Land. Tomorrow it's worth your while to see The L.A. Complex (Tuesday, CTV and MuchMusic, 9 p.m.), a show promoted as being about "Hook-ups, Hang-ups and Call-backs," which is true. Set among a group of aspiring Canadian actors looking for their big break in Hollywood, it's a soap with some smarts and well-drawn characters. It comes from the Degrassi producers.

Also tomorrow there's the debut of Arctic Air (Tuesday, CBC, 9 p.m.) which is terrifically old-fashioned adventure-entertainment set in Yellowknife. And don't forget the return of the drollery on Republic of Doyle (Wednesday, CBC, 9 p.m.), with big-time, Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe joining the series as a guest star for the opening episode.

Check local listings.

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