COMEDY PREMIERE "House of Lies"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime (The pay channel will be available to nonsubscribers this weekend.)

REASON TO WATCH Pretty good cast -- Don Cheadle, Ben Schwartz, Kristen Bell -- but caveat emptor.

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WHAT IT'S ABOUT As chief rainmaker at management consulting firm Galweather-Stearn, Marty Kaan (Cheadle) -- and his posse -- treat clients like the scum of the earth they are -- but he does it all with blandishment, baloney and bull, aka "consultant speak." His personal life's particularly interesting -- there's an ex-wife Monica (Dawn Olivieri), who's a competing consultant; a son Roscoe (Donis Leonard Jr.), who's into cross-dressing; and a live-in dad Jeremiah (Glynn Turman), who keeps order on the homefront. On Sunday, Marty and crew -- Clyde (Schwartz), Doug (Josh Lawson) and Jeannie (Bell) -- sell their weasel juice to a sleazy mortgage broker.

MY SAY Kaan is based on a writer named Martin Kihn, who published a "self-help" book a few years ago whose colorful title we can't repeat. This (and a subsequent book called "House of Lies") was intended to be both a satire on the Age of Greed, just then imploding, as well as a guide to corporate gamesmanship. That explains the genesis of some of Kaan's more piratical observations like, "you have to violate every space, every molecule [of the client] so that all's that left is 'yes.' "

This could be the blueprint for a smart satire, except that "House of Lies" makes a lousy first impression. It's so blisteringly vulgar and knife-edged -- yeah, even by Showtime standards -- that "smart" turns into "vicious." What's encouraging is that "Lies" improves. A couple of episodes in, it starts to breathe and so do the characters; it's still not all that funny, but at least it's less offensive.

BOTTOM LINE Too brittle and full of bile to cleanly hit the target.

GRADE C+