Showtime Networks president David Nevins first met writer Matthew Carnahan in the late ’90s, when Nevins was an NBC executive and Carnahan broke into television by creating a drama, Trinity, that drew critical acclaim but not enough eyeballs and was canceled after only four episodes.
Despite Trinity’s short shelf life, Nevins thought Carnahan had a promising future and was excited when they got an opportunity to work together again several years ago, after Showtime took a chance on another Carnahan creation, the comedy House of Lies. This time, they have a hit on their hands as Lies ends its third season April 6 and has been picked up for a fourth go-round. The show has consistently been one of Showtime’s’ top-rated comedies, drawing more than 3 million viewers per week.
“I knew Matt was going to have a big career as a writer, but I didn’t know it was going to be in comedy,” Nevins says. “There was nothing comedic about [Trinity]. He’s gotten more offbeat. He’s gone in a lot of different directions since then.”
House of Lies stars Don Cheadle as Marty Kaan, the alpha dog in a pack of four ruthless, horned-up management consultants. Cheadle, a 2005 Academy Awards best actor nominee (Hotel Rwanda), has been nominated for two Golden Globes and two Emmys for Lies and last year won the Globe.
“Landing an actor like Don Cheadle is a dream come true; he’s amazing,” Carnahan says. “This is the best creative experience of my life by far. I’ve never had so much fun writing.”
Colleagues credit Carnahan with providing the words and direction that give House of Lies its mojo. Ben Schwartz, who plays Kaan’s sidekick, Clyde Oberholt, calls Carnahan “an absolute gift to actors and actresses” and says Carnahan’s writing and encouragement have helped him widen his range as an actor.
“The elegant manner in which he juggles comedy and drama, levity and darkness, to create such rich, deep characters is amazing to watch,” Schwartz says.
“Carnahan’s got the soul of a jazz musician. He has a really unique voice, a unique sense of humor, that really comes through in that show,” Nevins adds. “The show has interesting things to say about sex and race and class, and it feels to me very much like a 21st century comedy.”
Carnahan, who grew up in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, headed to New York when he was 20 to study at New York University and the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. Luck was with him from the start: Joanne Woodward was in the audience for a performance of his first play, Diary From Avenue B, and invited Carnahan to be in a theater company she was starting. “I made a really important connection to her, and I felt very protected by her and her husband [Paul Newman] in my early years in New York,” Carnahan says. “They were just wonderful people, so, so kind to me, and such artistic mentors.”
Carnahan spent 10 years in New York as a playwright and director, then went Hollywood in 1991 when he won a screenwriters fellowship sponsored by Universal Studios and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. He directed a 1997 feature film, Black Circle Boys, based on a drama he wrote during the fellowship program. The following year, Carnahan created Trinity for NBC and was smitten with television.
“TV’s where the energy was for me,” he says. “TV was beginning to evolve. I got to the point where I could think in this novelistic form that is television nowadays better than I could thinking in terms of a closed-ended, explosion-filled hour-and-a-half.”
Carnahan’s first opportunity to run a show came when a series he created for FX, Dirt, starring Courteney Cox, ran in 2007-08. “I created the series as a contemporary retelling of Faust, then I kind of got gently persuaded into adding a female protagonist,” he says. “For me, it was a real lesson in when to say yes and when to say no. I felt I grew a tremendous amount.”
His third TV show, House of Lies, debuted in 2012 and remains on a roll. Carnahan, meanwhile, has since sold a pilot to Showtime for a musical series, The Love Song of Joanna Strange, that’s in part an homage to his TV hero, the late British writer Dennis Potter, best known for the BBC series The Singing Detective.
Carnahan also is planning to direct a movie based on his novel, Serpent Girl. And he coproduced a yet-to-be-released indie film, Ride, that his long-time partner, Helen Hunt, starred in, wrote, directed and produced. Carnahan and Hunt have a 9-year-old daughter, Makena lei, and when he’s not working or with his family, he loves surfing (“That’s kind of my church”), reading (“I have a big crush on American fiction”) and Japanese woodcarving. Carnahan also has a 16-year-old son, Emmett, who has appeared this season in some episodes of House of Lies, including the upcoming season finale, which his father directed.
“The season ends in such a messed-up way I just don’t have any idea how Marty [Kaan] is even going to be in the series next year,” Carnahan says, “We’ve written ourselves into an insane exploding pretzel, so something’s got to give, in a good way.”