The writers wore T-shirts showing their tattoos. I'd dressed in Brooks Brothers non-iron French cuffs and a Hugo Boss jacket. It was the dawn of our partnership, one in which they would translate my life into television drama. "So, Marty," one of the writers began. "How much sex did you have . . . in your office?"
I revealed the horrible truth: none.
"Consultants eat badly and often," I said. "We're not an attractive bunch. And it would have been a career-limiting move."
We were off to an interesting start.
In 2005, I wrote a book, House of Lies, about my four years as a consultant at a top Manhattan firm. It was a cynical guide to an unpleasant world, but Showtime saw something else—the seed of a comedy series of the same name (which debuted January 8). Don Cheadle plays me, or sort of: His character is named Marty Kaan.
And me, Marty Kihn? I'm back to being a "consultant," helping Showtime's writers portray the business. Selflessly, I also offered to spend long weekends with Cheadle, perhaps at his place, helping him get to know his character. "Mr. Cheadle prefers," replied a sensible voice in his office, "to work organically."
So I spent days yodeling on to the writers about recruiting events, evil partners, felonious expense reports. Then I saw the translation. Cheadle's Marty is a devious, driven, elegantly dressed partner at a thriving L.A. firm who is irresistible to women. His apartment has a spectacular view of a painted L.A. skyline and is populated by a sassy cross-dressing son I don't have (yet), with occasional booty calls from a pill-popping ex-wife I also don't have (yet).
I was surprised at first. What an odd creative process—to keep the setting but change so much within, a standard consultant's office that someone suddenly has sex in. But for all its extravagance, the show nails consulting on an existential level. It's a brutal, nomadic, exhausting, morally dubious profession glued together with false intimacy and double-talk. People say things like "We'll leverage these strong-form learnings into an impactful deliverable going forward," rather than "We'll use this info in a document." Consulting burrows into your psyche. It harms your ability to be straightforward with anyone. With their roving sexual pain clinic, the writers employed Hollywood and advertising's shared storytelling trick: They heightened power and imbalance. They showed people reacting to desire, not needs. But the core, amazingly, remained.
In the pilot episode, a client asks Marty Kaan a question he has no answer to, so he falls back on what I've called the "consultant's panic button"—turning a question around, to ask what the client thinks. As I watched Cheadle perform as I once did, I recognized the frailty, the realness in the fake. There's a poetry there, when actors pretend to be management consultants. Consultants have been pretending to be actors for years. We survive on stories.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.