Showtime’s “House of Lies” is quite an intriguing show. Starring Oscar-nominee Don Cheadle as unscrupulous-and-high-powered management consultant Marty Kaan, the show centers on Kaan’s exploits juggling multi-million dollar clients, a less-than-stable home life, and his small crew of colorful co-workers. Among those colleagues is Jeanie van der Hooven, played by Kristen Bell. Just as calculating as Marty, Jeanie is ambitious and cold, with a sharp wit and even sharper perspective.
Throughout the series, the relationship between Marty and Jeanie has become more and more of a focus. What began as flirty banter between coworkers soon evolved into unrequited affection in season 2, and then romantically strained rivalry currently in season 3 after Jeannie awkwardly admitted she was in love with her boss, Kaan. Things have been further complicated by the introduction of Lukas Frye, a charismatic-but-unpredictable clothing line maverick (hilariously played by rapper/actor T.I.) who has been making moves on Jeanie.
The show has been unafraid of tackling taboo themes as it pertains to sex–and it does so in clear-eyed and unflinching fashion. Marty’s cross-dressing young son, Roscoe, has been the most sincere and pure-hearted character of the show’s first two seasons. Jeanie has shown no qualms about using her attractiveness as a weapon and slept with a major player at their old firm to insure a promotion that never happened. Marty’s sexual exploits have featured a plethora of R-rated scenarios involving everything from lesbians to ecstasy to orgies. And, obviously, interracial sex and relationships have been on full display.
It has been posited that Hollywood is unwilling to feature interracial relationships in its more prominent films–too afraid to turn off Middle America with scenes of pretty white starlets making out with black guys. In so many mainstream motion pictures, if there is a black male lead and a white female lead, any romance is only hinted at (see Eddie Murphy and Lisa Eilbacher in Beverly Hills Cop, Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief, Marlon Wayans and Sandra Bullock in The Heat or Will Smith and Bridget Moynahan in I, Robot or Will Smith and Charlize Theron in Hancock or Will Smith and Linda Florentino in Men In Black–well, you get the idea.) The exceptions to this tend to lean towards movies that are explicitly about interracial relationships, like Jungle Fever or Save the Last Dance; but you’re not likely to see Jennifer Aniston paired up with Terrence Howard in a mainstream romantic comedy.
It is an interesting contrast, however, when one looks at popular American television.
Over the last twenty years, interracial relationships have become much more common on American TV. The popular ABC series Ally McBeal featured star Calista Flockhart in two interracial relationships during the show’s tenure (one with Taye Diggs, the other with Jesse Martin), Eriq La Salle’s character on the NBC medical drama ER was paired with British actress Alex Kingston for a time; HBO’s critically-acclaimed crime drama The Wire featured Lance Riddick and Dierdre Lovejoy in a romantic affair. More recently, the ABC sitcom Happy Endings highlighted an interracial married couple (Damon Wayans, Jr and Eliza Coupe), Dax Shepherd and Joy Bryant play a young couple with a family on NBC’s Parenthood and the ever-popular melodrama Scandal features black actress Kerry Washington in a heated affair with a white president, played by Tony Goldwyn. And going back even earlier, Roxy Roker and Franklin Cover, as the Jefferson’s uptight neighbors, were a fixture on The Jeffersons in the 1970s and 80s.
It’s somewhat strange that American television is less resistant to feature interracial relationships in a relatively “normalized” setting while mainstream films seem to still be squeamish about it–unless presenting it in a quasi-topical context. And before we rush to assume that so much progress has been made on either front–we should make sure to remember that the onus is ultimately on the people, and there are still many who prefer not to see white women paired with black men, in particular. During her stint as La Salle’s love interest on E.R., Alex Kingston commented on the backlash the interracial relationship got from some fans. “[Y]ou see interracial relationships all over the place [outside America]. I kind of naively thought it would be even more liberal in America. And it couldn’t have been further from the truth,” she told The Guardian in 2013. “In fact, I’m trying to think if there’s a television show right now [in 2013] where there’s an African American and Caucasian relationship. They’re few and far between.”
Which brings us back to House of Lies.
The show features Don Cheadle bedding and romancing quite a few beautiful women–many of whom are white, including the aforementioned Bell. With such romantic tension at the center of the show, the witty banter and shifting dynamics between Cheadle’s Marty and Bell’s Jeannie has made for entertaining television. Their chemistry is great, reminiscent of the famous love-hate relationships of yesteryear: Sam and Diane from Cheers, or Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd as David and Maddie on Moonlighting.
And yet, that intriguing romantic tension features little in the way the show is being marketed. One look at the imagery of the show’s promotional materials and it’s clear that Marty and Jeanie’s romantic angst is anything but clear. The intimate nature of their relationship is downplayed. While the romantic strain is alluded to in the trailer for season 3, it’s nearly invisible in the show’s overall marketing online. While Showtime subscribers see the trailer, curious fans just surfing the Web for an idea about the show would just assume that the pretty blonde girl from Veronica Mars is simply one of the principals on Marty’s team–not that she is engaging in a tortured “will they or won’t they?” back-and-forth with her black male lead. At the end of season 2, Jeanie professes her love for Marty–but he blows her off. At the start of season 3, Marty has a dream about kissing Jeanie on his desk. The dream sequence is the first affirmation of Marty’s feelings for Jeanie–and the first time stars Bell and Cheadle actually kiss on-camera.
But this is what comes up if you Google “Kristen Bell kissing Don Cheadle:”
Anything but Kristen Bell kissing Don Cheadle.
So maybe the network isn’t so eager to showcase the fact that the former “Veronica Mars” is making out with her black, male co-stars on it’s hip, clever show. And their reluctance speaks volumes. Because they know that there are still many people in this country who don’t want to see that. And that proves that there is still a lot of change yet to come.