In 2008, the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing pecuniary chaos left the world at a dangerous economic precipice. At the time it felt like the global economy was a few lousy policy decisions shy of ushering in the age of Mad Max and Furiosa. Oliver Kienle’s new German mini-series, Bad Banks, explores what happens after a greedy financial sector actually tanks an economy. The six-part series explores the backroom dealings, ass-kissing, and backstabbing that enables companies to hit their lofty fiscal goals and puts faces to the broken people keeping these ruthless organizations afloat.
The series begins with chaos in the streets. The news informs us that we’re witnessing an economic sector collapse five times worse than Lehman Brothers. ATMs are all out of cash, rioters are clashing with the police, and Leipzig’s mayor has disappeared. But this disorder is Bad Banks’ endgame, and the story jumps back in time eight weeks to the flashpoint that set this crisis in motion.
It’s been a bumpy road for bankers ever since the 2008 financial meltdown. In the decade since, the public began viewing them as amoral leeches, and they’ve faced tighter regulations, making their jobs even harder. We’re privy to this industry’s seedy side right away when the series’ main character Jana (Paula Beer), gets let go at work for outperforming her awful boss. Jana receives an enticing job offer before she returns home when Christelle (Désirée Nosbusch), one of the higher-ups at her former company sets her up with a competitor. But this favour comes at a price. Jana will be Christelle’s mole, and when the time is right, she must deliver information that crosses a moral line.
Jana’s new workplace, Global Bank in Frankfurt is set upon making tyrants great again, and they bring on an impressive new leader named Gabriel Fenger (Barry Atsma) to rally their staff behind. With Christelle feeding her tips, Jana quickly assumes a prominent position in the company and takes on a vital role in a high-stakes project. Jana must not only hit the ground running but also deal with complicated colleagues who have spent years seething away in the toxic pressure cooker they call a workplace.
Bad Banks leans into all of the sex, drugs, fast money, double crosses, and scandals that make for must-see TV, but the mileage you get from the show depends on how you answer the next question. Do you prefer rooting for or against people? Most of us love to get behind charming heroes and broken protagonists who fight to turn their lives around. But sometimes a story doesn’t provide us with that option. Instead, we may have a front row seat to a character’s tragic downfall or sit in anticipation of watching a bastard get their comeuppance. Bad Banks, at least through the first three episodes, falls into the latter category.
Jana is our point of view character, but the story doesn’t make her easy to like. We know her arrangement with Christelle is a deal with the devil, but what’s unclear is why she’s so comfortable agreeing to it. She’s not forced into taking the job to pay her sick grandmother’s medical bills or using her work connections to save an orphanage. Jana simply wants the job and has the hubris to believe she can think her way out of any compromising position. Jana may redeem herself in the back end of the story, but at least for now, he precarious debt to Christelle speaks to a larger theme running through the series. What kind of person wants this soul-sucking job in the first place?
Does the financial sector attract callous monsters or does the job suck the souls out of well-intentioned people? When the story begins, Jana is close to her boyfriend and his young daughter, but it doesn’t take much before she’s blowing off their Skype sessions like calls from telemarketers. Her coworkers, though, are each broken in more spectacular ways. This isn’t a story where flawed people join forces to create something bigger than themselves. Instead, it’s a series where people learn their work-friends’ secrets and use them as leverage. So, again I ask you, what type of story do you prefer; the ones where you cheer for a hero or root against the villains?
Each episode clocks in at around 50-minutes, and you can feel the story growing more puckish as it goes on. The buttoned-up series begins loosening its collar by episode two – mostly because these bloodthirsty sharks stop hiding their contempt for each other. Much like Billions and Succession, Bad Bank asks viewers to spend several hours with a handful of vulgar people. Your tolerance for their company depends on whether you’re the type who slows down on the highway to check out wreckage. Bad Banks lacks much of Billions and Succession’s humour and charm but is just as concerned with exploring what drives successful people’s pursuit of excess. If you don’t find the psychology of white-collar crooks appealing the show’s tight pacing, slick production values, and impending dystopic plotline are convincing enough reasons to stick around for the entire run.
Screening tonight, the 9th and the 11th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Get your tickets now.