LOS ANGELES — From Enron's collapse to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, corporate greed has plunged the U.S. into recession, toppled overseas economies and inspired the worldwide Occupy Wall Street movement. But that doesn't mean we can't laugh at it. "House of Lies," a new dark comedy premiering Sunday on Showtime, takes direct aim at the one percent.
Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell star as management consultants who visit struggling companies around the country to provide dubious but expensive advice, all while having a good time on the company dime. Their ultimate goal isn't to improve the client's image or bottom line, but to boost their own.
"It is manipulation at its finest," says Bell.
Based on Martin Kihn's 2005 book, "House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time," the Showtime series pokes a sharp finger at the perversion inside the world of big incomes and big expense accounts — and adds a heavy dose of sex.
"The whole sexual side of it, that's all spiced up," the author says. "The real life of a consultant is extremely dull."
Cheadle's character, Marty Kaan, is the protagonist and chief manipulator in "House of Lies." Impeccably dressed and fluent in nonsense business jargon, Marty is a smooth talker who's happy to take advantage of the corporate big-wigs he's been hired to counsel. He leads a team of consultants — played by Bell, Josh Lawson and Ben Schwartz — who complement and emulate his slippery techniques.
It's a departure for Cheadle in both character and venue. The 47-year-old Oscar nominee (for 2004's "Hotel Rwanda") is known mostly as a movie star, with credits including "Crash," ''Iron Man 2" and the "Ocean's Eleven" series.
He says he was drawn to the small screen as both star and executive producer by the "House of Lies" concept and "how insane this character was."
"I've been fortunate to have a lot of different experiences in my quote-unquote career with the kinds of characters I get to play," Cheadle says. "But I guess nobody quite like him yet."
"Marty Kaan is kind of a bad dude," says show creator Matthew Carnahan. "He's not a great guy," and that's why it's so delicious to have Cheadle play him.
"He's got such a squeaky clean humanitarian image," Carnahan says. "You put him in this part, and I just think there's a lot you can get away with."
Marty has sex with several women each episode.
"They have a point system for how many hotel workers they sleep with while on the road," says executive producer Jessica Borsiczky.
Bell's character, Jeannie, is also a departure from the sweeter roles she's played on TV and in film.
"I don't think I've ever played anyone as layered as Jeannie before, or as duplicitous," Bell says.
Marty and his team bring their pricey advice to a mortgage bank, a baseball team owned by a divorcing couple, a pharmaceutical company and a megachurch — all while being threatened by a potential corporate merger.
A recent shoot hints at the wealth and excess central to the show: In a swanky room at downtown LA's historic Biltmore Hotel, Cheadle, Bell and the rest of the cast wear designer clothes and sip designer cocktails as their characters discuss multimillion-dollar mergers that most benefit the men at the top.
"Ultimately, it explores everything that's messed up about American capitalism in the 21st century in a very funny way," says Showtime's President of Entertainment, David Nevins.
Early episodes show Marty and crew coming out on top with few consequences, but Cheadle and the producers promise the characters get their due.
"It does feel cathartic on some level," Carnahan says. "Even though we happen to be working, the pervasive sense of economic woe and gloom that our country is under the cloud of right now, it's a great kind of gestalt experience for all of us to be able to waggle a finger at it and make fun of the people who are taking our jobs and our money."
AP Entertainment Writer can be reached at www.twitter.com/APSandy .