A shit-eating Jeff Daniels is deliciously depraved in Netflix’s A Man in Full

The word “toxic” doesn’t seem to cut it when it comes to the depraved real estate vultures of new Netflix series A Man in Full. Here’s Luke Buckmaster on the world of Jeff Daniels’ loathsome lead character.

In his new Netflix series Jeff Daniels brings Frankly Underwood-ian vibes to his deliciously depraved portrayal of Charlie Croker, a real estate mogul in big trouble with the bank, flapping around like a fish in oxygen as the tides turn against him, potential bankruptcy and disgrace looming. Having accrued some $800 million in debt, and perhaps now required to give the devil his due, Croker is terribly corrupt and nefarious but adamant he’s done nothing wrong.

In previous times these not-so-honourable personality traits might’ve made Croker a hard-hitting protagonist, but in the current era he’s just another post-Gekko, Trump-like shyster, interpreting the American Dream as “screw or be screwed.” The tone of this monstrously enjoyable show, filled with shit-eating snarls and bad men butting horns, is “there’s blood in the water, and somebody’s gonna get eaten.”

Daniels is very entertaining from the start, beginning A Man in Full well dressed and lying on the ground, back to the floor, passed out or possibly dead, accompanied by voice-over narration from Croker that goads the audience before boasting about his (rather dubious) legacy. “When you die, will people notice?” he asks us, in thick southern drawl. “When I go, there are gonna be a lot of memories of me by a lot of people,” he continues, adding a caveat: “many who hate me.”

It’s not hard to see why: this loud, bellicose, overfed beast of late stage capitalism is the kind of guy who stares at a venomous snake (this happens in episode two) and yells: “you think you can kill me? Nothin’ can kill me!” And who, discussing his upcoming knee surgery (in episode three) demands to have “your best knee! Not just a new one…your best one!” This kind of rah-rah-rah win-at-all-costs ethos, which reminded me of the “gotta be number one!” Von Erich brothers from The Iron Claw, must surely be an exhausting way to live.

There’s a lot of chest beating in this adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s novel of the same name; a lot of bad behaviour from old school blokes—Croker especially—for whom the word “toxic” does not begin to cut it. Watching Croker and the boys from the bank, including the also angrily competitive Harry (Bill Camp), spectacularly clash around the conference room table is a treat.  The women are less of a focus, almost grudgingly admitted into the gentlemen’s club—Diane Lane playing Croker’s ex-wife, emerging from their relationship and establishing a more fully formed version of herself, and Lucy Liu playing Joyce, an entrepreneur, friend and acquaintance of Croker who feels particularly deserving of a more pronounced arc.

One significant supporting player is Tom Pelphrey’s Raymond Peepgrass, a loan officer working with Harry on a case against Croker, whose professional and personal life is also tumbling down around him. He’s a pathetic character, at long last pushing back as he drowns before our eyes. The latter could also be said perhaps of Croker, though he fights bitterly, dirtily and second-naturedly: if this guy goes down, it’s with a lit stick of dynamite to hurl in his oppressors’ faces.

There’s also the story of Jon Michael Hill’s Conrad, a Black employee of Croker’s imprisoned for assaulting a police officer, whose plot tangent feels disconnected from the masthead, as if it could belong to any number of productions. His hard-hitting thread however reminds us that for people like him, his life and liberty are on the line; for people like Croker, it’s their investment properties and share portfolios. Conrad’s plotline becomes more gripping as the show proceeds; you really feel for him, and want him released from the slammer.

A Man in Full doesn’t do a great job escalating the stakes; in many ways its earliest moments are the most intense. But it’s rock-solid, moreish, sometimes very engaging viewing, with a yabbering, jabbering staginess that’s hard to resist.