At the beginning of the first season of House of Lies, Marty Kaan's father asks him, "Since when is management consulting a real job?" Kaan (played by Don Cheadle) responds: "Since it pays seven figures a year." That's a pretty serious exaggeration for 95 percent of the consultants out there (unless you're Mitt Romney). But what would entertainment be without its poetic license?
Even though it's a ripe topic for satirical farce, a lot of people still don't really "get" management consulting. Hell, I'm a management consultant and even I can't explain it easily. In the simplest terms, management consultants help organizations determine why they aren't performing well, then design and sometimes implement strategies that turn the ship around. Why do organizations buy these services? Because management is so mired in the daily work and associated fire drills it's hard for them to focus objectively and strategically. Operations trumps planning every time. Why are management consultants drawn to the work? Because we like problem solving, analytics and the rush that comes from finding the piece that completes the puzzle. When you come up with a solution that has real impact and buy-in from all parties? That feels good. For everyone.
Though the series doesn't express the often meaningful and mutually rewarding aspects of the collaboration between consultant and client, House of Lies does get a lot of the surface aesthetics right. The analytical models, the PowerPoint "decks," the jargon (if I've said "paradigm shift" once, I've said it a thousand times), the pressure of making billable hours and getting "after work." The endless sitting in client conference rooms with your team, crunching and strategizing and earning your keep. The real, affectionate teasing camaraderie that emerges organically with your teammates if for no other reason than because you spend nearly 12 hours a day with each other. And the drinking. Oh lord, there is drinking.
Though Cheadle's Marty Kaan is the main focus of the show, the character I relate to most is Kristen Bell's "Jeannie." Like me, Jeannie has excelled in a world where many women play, but where few have been given status of top dog. Like me, she's confident in her abilities, knows her worth and can stand up to the less scrupulous men who surround her. Like me, she's had weird experiences with CFOs. Early in season one, a top financial officer asks if he can suck her toes. Not long ago a CFO stuck his tongue in my mouth while saying good-bye after a happy hour. Sure, I dodged and weaved when I saw what was coming, but he found a way to get in there before I pushed him off. Like me, she knows that while her attractiveness is not even a sliver of the sum of her parts, it does get her through the door. Men use all the tools at their disposal to manipulate a situation towards a perceived greater good. Why shouldn't women get in the game?
In many ways House of Lies is like any other show with an anti-hero like Marty Kaan at its center. Management consulting is just the backdrop (like advertising is for Don Draper or drug dealing is for Nancy Botwin). The anti-hero gives us a person to project our deep-seated Id. Kaan is the person who takes risks, who is exciting and unpredictable. He is sex symbol and savior and parent figure all in one slick, mysterious package (the members of Marty's team even call him "Daddy"). Sometimes it's gratifying to see the anti-hero get his/her just desserts, but most of the time, we want them to win. It's unusual in a consulting engagement to wade through an organization's environment and not find at least a few areas for improvement. On the rare occasion that doesn't occur, you look to the hero to make it happen. Early in my consulting career, I've faced scenarios where I looked to "Mommy" or "Daddy" to pull the rabbit out of the hat. Later in my trajectory, I've been the person the team looked to be the magician. And when you pull off that trick and it works... you feel like a goddamn hero.
At the end of season one, there are a few shots fired by disgruntled former clients who want to wage war on Marty Kaan. If we use past as prologue, somehow we know this fictional anti-hero "Daddy" will dodge the bullets and survive without breaking a sweat.
The new season of House of Lies kicks off on Sunday, March 4 at 10:00 p.m. on Showtime.
Jennifer Tress is an independent consultant who has worked with Fortune 500 companies, global non-profits and the U.S. federal government. She is a writer who has published in anthologies and magazines and recently completed her first memoir, You're Not Pretty Enough.