Obscene wealth takes a conspiratorial turn in drama series Devils

Streaming on Neon from July 15, new series Devils takes our ongoing fascination with watching wealth and the world of finance in a darker direction. Tony Stamp is impressed with its bingeable blend of whodunnit, drama, lifestyle porn and pulpy airport thriller.

Remember Dallas? It was a show that aired during the glorious, mulleted years of the 1980s, following a family of obscenely wealthy oil tycoons. Dubbed ‘aspirational TV’, it represented the zenith of that era’s Reagan-led ‘greed is good’ mentality. Giving moneyed people pride of place on TV never really went away after that, with a through-line leading from Lifestyles of The Rich and Famous to reality show stars like your Paris Hiltons, your Kardashians, Real Housewives and so on.

Ludicrous amounts of filthy lucre, dangled on our screens like the proverbial carrot, a salve at the end of a long day busting one’s hump at the coal factory. But for every season turn, turn, etc, and at a time when global inequality has reached frankly dystopian levels, TV has begun to flirt with the question: ‘wait, are rich people bad?’.

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I know, there’s a rich legacy of wealthy on-screen baddies, but generally, they serve as obstacles to our protagonists’ wealth, and more nuanced critiques like American Psycho are still outliers. Donald Trump may have been the model for Biff’s arc in Back To The Future Part II, sure, but in 2020 he’s literally the President of the United States.

Succession springs to mind as a show lampooning money’s corrupting influence, through a veil of pithy one-liners. It’s my understanding that Billions is likewise none too flattering. And Devils, a new Italian/French co-production centred on investment banking, goes a step further, drawing a line from so-called ‘problem banks’ like the ones that ushered in the 2008 financial crisis, to murder, and straight-up genocide. It quite possibly helps that the show was made outside the epicentre of craven buck-chasing (America). In fact, it mostly takes place in the UK.

Devils is set in 2011, when the world was still tender from the collapse three years earlier. The show references this frequently (and other plot points eventually connect to global events of the time, like the ousting of Gaddafi in Libya). Italian actor Alessandro Borghi plays the wonderfully-monikered Massimo Ruggero, trader at the London branch of (fictional) bank NYL. We meet him as he’s anointed Golden Boy by CEO Dominic Morgan, played by none other than ‘80s heartthrob Patrick Dempsey (Loverboy), following up his run as 2000s heartthrob Dr. Dreamy on Grey’s Anatomy.

From the show’s opening moments Morgan is sinister and opaque, even while deliveringg an aspirational monologue. “There are these two young fish swimming along,” he says to the team, striding around the marbled environs of  NYL head office, “They meet this older fish coming the other way. ‘Morning boys!’ the older fish says. Water’s cold today isn’t it!’”

“The two younger fish watch the older one swim away, then say, completely baffled, ‘What the fuck is water?’”

He goes on to explain that water is to fish as finance is to bankers. Intercut with this are brief flashes of someone falling to their death in the bank’s lobby, clueing us in that the stakes will continue to be raised by these slick men and women in their power suits. And sure enough, it isn’t too long before the bodies hit the floor.

This is a show that moves like a pulpy airport thriller. That’s because it was one—Diavoli, by Italian author Guido Maria Brera, was published in 2015, presumably after he’d spent a few years getting pissed off about the recession. Devils will eventually widen its lens from an investment bank in London to certain other real-world events and why they happened, switching from a whodunnit centred on a murder to one focused on hundreds of murders and a certain deposed world leader. But for its first episode at least, it’s here to lure us in with all those expensive clothes and expensive restaurants and cars and houses. And sure, an expensive lap dance and some cocaine in the toilet for good measure.

All this while the camera whirls around Borghi and Dempsey, lit with splashes of neon, edited like a Tony Scott film (that is to say, quickly). Basically the cinematic language it’s using means every frame is dripping with wealth (as opposed to say, Veep, which [intentionally] belittles its powerful people through documentary-style handheld camera work). It is indeed alluring, and very nice to look at. The spectacular European vistas that begin to pop up don’t hurt either.

Through all this Dempsey seems to be having fun playing someone who is clearly a villain, even if (as of the first episode) the show hasn’t outed him as one yet. There’s a chance this is all a fake-out and he emerges as a saint, but I’m looking at the name of this TV show and doubting it… Dempsey’s reached an age where he can comfortably subvert his boyish good looks into something shady, where all his exchanges with protege Borghi are loaded with questionable intent. He actually did something similar a few years ago in Transformers: Dark of The Moon. Good looking out, Michael Bay!

Speaking of boyish, it caught me off guard that Dempsey is playing a father figure to Ruggero, something which is mentioned several times. A quick Google tells me that yep, he has a good twenty-five years on the Italian, which… wow.

Ruggero is the person we spend the most time with. As played by Borghi he’s a guy with plenty of angst buttoned down under that beautiful suit, as well as an alienated wife and a growing suspicion that yes, he and his colleagues might be the devils of the title. After a competitor dies in ep one he finds himself at the centre of the police investigation, which leads to string-pulling that uncovers a whole raft of dirty deeds, and increasingly Devils becomes the TV equivalent of a page-turner. In the parlance of our time—it’s bingeable.

There’s an interesting dissonance here actually: Ruggero clearly thinks he’s the protagonist of this show. He even provides voiceover replete with moral handwringing. But when Devils started spending time with a young hacker called Oliver Harris, I began to wonder if he was the stealth hero of this show. Played by Malachi Kirby, he’s eminently more relatable than anyone else because he’s, well, normal. Wicked computer skills sure, but he’s financially struggling, lives in a block of flats, has a young brother to look after… he’s clearly there as an audience surrogate being shown a glimpse of the high life, but I really hope he winds up coming out on top of Ruggero, who—no offence to any bankers reading this—is a banker.

Early on in Devils, a character explains to another what ‘shorting’ is, in banking terms (according to marketwatch.com it means “when an investor borrows shares and immediately sells them, hoping he or she can scoop them up later at a lower price”). The person he’s explaining it to, the CEO of a powerful company, immediately responds “I know what shorting is!” and you realise the explanation wasn’t there for him, it was there for us.

Devils knows it’s showing us something we don’t really understand. It’s giving us, like Oliver, a peek at the high life. It’s nice to be allowed a glimpse at the glitz and glamour, and as the body count adds up, nicer still to be reminded about the cost of it all.