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Uncomfortable Lessons In Business–And Race–From Showtime’s “House Of Lies”

Showrunner Matthew Carnahan on the workplace, work/life balance, and an entertainment business that remains, in many ways, segregated.

Uncomfortable Lessons In Business–And Race–From Showtime’s “House Of Lies”
[Images courtesy of Showtime]

You may or may not watch House of Lies, Showtime’s twisted comedy about the world of management consulting, whose first season received mixed reviews but whose recent episodes have been hitting a stride. The series stars Don Cheadle as Marty Kaan, an ethically challenged consultant with various romantic, familial, and professional entanglements. Cheadle, twice nominated for Best Actor at both the Emmys and Golden Globes for his work on the series, nabbed the latter in 2012. Showtime just announced it would be producing a fourth season.

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We prevailed upon showrunner Matthew Carnahan for the difficult task of drawing business advice from a show that satirizes business advice. Ultimately, our conversation ranged a little wider, as Carnahan weighed in on the pitfalls of the typical workplace and what he feels is our “entertainment apartheid system.”


Fast Company: Cheadle’s Marty Kaan is cunning, but not the most moral guy. What are methods of his that you avoid, and what are methods of his that you use, in running your own writers’ room?

Matthew Carnahan: I avoid lying. But I would say that the intersection of truth and flattery is something that’s kind of worth exploring. In order to get the best work out of my writers, I find it doesn’t help to berate them or make them feel small. It actually helps to lean in to the positive aspects of what they’re doing. Even if they might’ve ultimately failed with a given piece of work, there’s always something in there worth salvaging.

How do you deal with the puzzle of making an audience connect to a character who’s often loathsome?

I can’t write characters unless I fall in love with them a little bit. With Marty, I’m starting with a pretty ruined guy–pretty much morally bankrupt, unrepentant, unexamined, careless… kind of an all-around douchebag. And what I’ve been interested in is beginning to deconstruct him as an antihero. We begin to unravel this guy, to take him apart piece by piece and see if by the end of the series, there can be this person who emerges a little more examined and able to live with some version of integrity.

A lot of people probably don’t feel like they’re their best selves in the workplace.

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The workplace sucks. The workplace sucks ass. I’ve had so many jobs. I’ve counted 77 jobs I had while trying to eke out a living as a writer. I was copy editing for a soap opera magazine. I have so many vivid hellish memories of taking this soap opera magazine to print down in Hackensack. Of being a bike messenger. Of being a barback and cleaning up the most nasty, filthy dregs of the drunk life. So the workplace I think for most of us is pretty fucking awful, and my takeaway on the workplace is that I think what saves you is the human element–finding some respite from the horror of the banality of it in your coworkers, in people.

Not all workplace interactions on the show are kind. There’s a scene in a recent episode where Jeannie, played by Kristen Bell, chews out a female underling for reading books during her downtime rather than studying arcane management terms. Work/life balance is hard to come by in this world.

That scene is important. I probably do feel more for Jeannie’s coworker than I do for Jeannie at that moment. But it’s just one of the moments for me that highlights how alone Jeannie is, that she doesn’t have literature in her life, she doesn’t have people in her life. She has her work, and she’s desperately trying to suppress her desire to have a relationship because it worked out so badly the last time she tried. That’s just one of those moments when I go, “Wow, these characters are stuck in this environment where it’s really hard, and so often you have to put away the best part of yourself, suck it up, and suit up.”


You’ve just been renewed for a fourth season. But two years ago, June Thomas in Slate asked why the show wasn’t a hit?

The show is a hit. It trounces Girls every week, and gets over three million viewers. Where it isn’t is in the white zeitgeist–the “whitegeist.” This show in the African-American community is absolutely buzzed about and talked about, but because we live in the entertainment apartheid system that we live in, it doesn’t get perceived as the kind of hit that I is. That to me speaks of much bigger things–that after all this time, a show that at its heart is about three generations of African-American men is only going to get the traction it’s going to get in the black community, and that in the predominantly white media, it doesn’t get the same kind of traction that it should.

Until I made the show, I wasn’t necessarily awake to what’s quietly going on. As an example: there’s a director of photography I wanted to work with on the show. He’s African American, and I had done several projects with him. I never thought about, “What’s Gary off doing when I’m on various writing jobs?” I said Gary, I need to get your reel to make sure you get hired (which ultimately he did), and I looked at this reel and I think the reel had one white face in the whole thing. I thought, “Oh! There really are two worlds here.” We basically have a dual system. It really shocked me. We don’t talk about it, but it’s there.

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So what can we do to integrate entertainment?

You just have to begin. One has to begin making steps unilaterally. For me it’s about having a really diverse writers’ room, office, and crew. That’s what I can do today. And much as people might find fault with what I’m saying right now, I’m actually just trying to further the conversation. I don’t know what else can be one, other than sit in the discomfort, and talk about it.

This conversation has been condensed and edited.

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

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