Assessing new shows today often means reviewing structure first and content second.
TV is changing. Hell, all media is changing and it will likely never stop changing. The streaming services have altered our perception of what a “show” or a “series” even is. Entities that we once thought of as movies or TV shows are now converging into one big ball of entertainment and taking on new, unfamiliar forms.
So when it comes time to actually sit down and watch something new, oftentimes the first step is to figure out exactly what this thing is, and then from there figure out other ancillary things like “is it good?”
Dirty Money, Netflix’s new documentary series produced by popular Going Clear documentarian Alex Gibney, takes about two and a half episodes to “figure out.” It’s a series of six documentaries, all from different directors and all revolving around a singular theme: financial corruption.
The challenge, when watching the show analytically (though maybe not everyone will have this problem in a non-critical context) is figuring things out like what purpose does this serve? What niche does it fill? How will this advance our understanding of what television looks like – as many new streaming shows are expected to do nowadays, fairly or unfairly. And most simply: why is this is a series – as opposed to say a handful of actual documentaries?
The answer to the final question is probably that “actual” documentaries just take too long. Our appetite for reality-based content is becoming more ravenous as the basic facts of reality seem to become more debatable.That appetite can’t always afford to sit through the traditional documentary process in which a movie films for a bunch of years, debust at a buzz-worthy film festival, waits to get scooped up by HBO, Netflix, or Amazon, and then watches the accolades pour in.
With Dirty Money, Netflix and Gibney have decided to just leapfrog the entire process and throw six loosely-connected documentaries on the table at once. Whether it was intentional or not (it probably was), Netflix and Gibney have now created the Black Mirror model of televised documentaries. That is to say this is six thematically-related hours of television that will leave you feeling incredibly shitty.
Thankfully like Black Mirror, it’s also entertaining.
The six documentaries presented in Dirty Money cover the Volkswagen emissions scandal (“Hard NOx”), the payday loan industry (“Payday”), pharmaceutical industry greed (“Drug Short”), banks funding terrorism (“Cartel Bank”), Canadian capers (“The Maple Syrup Heist”), and yes…Trump (“The Confidence Man”). Because fucking obviously.
To extend the Black Mirror comparison, having six loosely-related, anthological episodes means comparing and contrasting those six loosely-related anthological episodes. Would Dirty Money have been better if Netflix had just chosen the best of the six documentaries and released it as a standalone? Probably. But it wouldn’t have been as creative or fun.
Strangely enough, despite the entire series being produced by Gibney, the one entry he helms is the worst. “Hard NOx” is the first episode and covers the Volkswagen emissions scandal, in which the German automaker cheated on emissions tests so that their diesel-run cars emitted a lot more noxious chemicals into the environment than the meters were measuring.
The extended “middle” of the episode is perfectly watchable and provides an unexpectedly complete look at the entire scandal. Gibney just makes the mistake of personalizing the issue too much in the beginning and offering up a “smoking gun” in the last act that doesn’t come across as well-researched or adequately terrifying after all we’ve already seen.
“The Maple Syrup Heist,” directed by Brian McGinn (Chef’s Table) is the series’ fifth episode and feels similarly inessential. It’s the shortest of the offerings and uses the infamous 2015 heist of $18 million worth of maple syrup from the Canadian strategic reserve of syrup as a jumping off point to tackle the fascinating struggle for independence within the Canadian maple syrup market. Allotting just 49 minutes to what amounts to a serious debate between capitalism and socialism, however, isn’t enough.
Episode four, “Cartel Bank,” from Kristi Jacobson (A Place at the Table) also has some short runtime issues but its topic is so explosive that its easy to become invested and fascinated by the story of HSBC and how it stealthily wired and laundered funds for terrorist organizations and drug cartels. In a just world Everett Stern will join Barb in the Netflix Quirky Characters Hall of Fame.
The remaining half of Dirty Money is uniformly fantastic and each one has the feel of one of those great “film for years, headline a major film festival, get HBO money” documentaries.
“Payday,” the series’ second episode directed by Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) is the show’s best because it’s its most infuriating. Moss by some miracle gets complete access to follow payday loan lender Scott Tucker around as he prepares for a criminal trial.
Tucker created a system in which desperate people were loaned money with the promise of easy low-interest repayment but then nickeled and dimed to almost literal death by small print and illegal fees. Tucker is in short: an asshole. And the great thing about assholes is that they can be so far removed from basic humanity and decency that they have no idea how big of an asshole they’re coming across. “Payday” is the episode you’re most likely to text your friends about, saying “you won’t believe this scam I just heard about.”
“Drug Short,” the third episode from Erin Lee Carr (Thought Crimes) is unimaginably-named but also surprisingly exciting. It uses Pharma-douche Martin Shkreli as an entry point into the world of big pharma and how hedge fund managers turned it into an amoral hellscape of profits over people. It tells the story of Valeant (that you’re going to want to at least Google if you don’t get around to watching the episode), a pharmaceutical company that has no interest in developing actual medicine but rather acquiring old ones and jacking up the prices.
And then there is He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
“The Confidence Man” is the final episode and it’s directed by Fisher Stevens.* Of course this is the one likely to garner the most attention because its subject has a monopoly on all attention. It depicts the rise, fall, then rise again of Donald Trump in careful, exacting detail.
Yes, the actor. He’s had a second life as a successful documentarian including the intimate Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher doc Bright Lights
In covering his rise to celebrity, metaphorical nuking of Atlantic City, and shady business dealings overseas, “Confidence Man” paints a complete picture of the man that will probably not surprise many. That picture is of a rampaging id of a human being who doesn’t know how to say “no” and whose quest for attention suffocates everything around him like a weed desperately shooting up towards sunlight and destroying everything in its path.
There are no major bombshells in “The Confidence Man.” There is just all the existing, public information we have available about Donald Trump, packaged into a believable and chronological narrative of his life – perhaps the most bizarre public life in American history.
“The Confidence Man” is not going to change the political landscape but it is a fair, scary, and worthwhile capper to this collection of episodes.
Dirty Money’s structure is what makes it unique. Thematically, the episodes don’t cheat and each has something to say about the nature of corruption. Unsurprisingly all those episodes draw similar conclusions: it’s bad.
That structure and singular theme makes Dirty Money a surprisingly fun and bingeable experience. That’s no small feat for a show that that features six hour-long, at times very heavy documentaries. When the concept of “bingeing” TV shows was introduced and popularized it largely referred to just cranking out full seasons of Scrubs or Breaking Bad instead of confronting reality’s actual problems.
Who could have guessed that one day bingeing TV shows would mean diving directly into reality’s actual, seemingly unsolvable problems? And that we’d enjoy it?