TV: Bad Banks (Season 1)

Every now and then, paralysis of choice leads me down unlikely paths as I’m choosing which show to watch next. This explains how I landed on Bad Banks, a polished, sleazy German series about scheming financiers and day traders hellbent on making a fortune, regardless of the consequences. Jana Liekam (Paula Beer) works for Crédit International, a high-powered bank in Luxembourg. When Jana is fired for going against her scumbag boss Luc (Marc Limpach), she makes a stink to one of the bank’s executives, Christelle Leblanc (Désirée Nosbusch). The sympathetic Leblanc sets up Jana with a new job at Deutsche Global Invest in Frankfurt. There, she gets on the radar of hotshot investment banking executive Gabriel Fenger (Barry Atsma), a notorious risk-taker who brings out Jana’s inner competitive streak. What Jana doesn’t know is that Leblanc is a former DGSE spook, and she’s planted Jana at DGI for purpose, to be used as a pawn in a high-stakes, corporate espionage chess game. But once Jana gets wind of her situation, she starts making her own decisions, putting the fate of the world economy in the balance.

Bad Banks is gritty European antihero fiction, thematically similar to American shows like Breaking Bad or The Shield in the way it revels in its conscienceless villainy, even as it condemns it. I thought I’d had my fill of that type of show, since they have an annoying habit of glorifying reprehensible behavior and luring the viewer into sympathizing with despicable protagonists. But damn it, those shows are also great, both in their ruthless sociopolitical critique and their suspenseful, pulse-pounding execution. Bad Banks got its hooks into me in a similar way, delivering scathing critique of reckless corruption in the financial world as it delivers a twisty, compelling thriller narrative. It’s seedy and cynical, male-gazey and nihilistic, but it’s also self-aware in these choices, unflinching and incisive in its condemnation of capitalism’s destructive nature, and the hollow, greedy compulsions of its high-powered players. Beer is riveting as the resourceful climber whose escalating, aggressive financial scheming is punctuated by guilt-ridden panic attacks whenever they go awry. She brings just enough Walter White relatability to her role as she negotiates tenuous alliances and rivalries with a capable, multilingual supporting cast which includes Atsma, Limpach, Nosbusch, Mai Duong Kieu, Tobias Moretti, Albrecht Schuch, and others. This weave of office-politics angling gives the show many of the beats and tropes of spy fiction, but ports them refreshingly into an uncommon white-collar context. This show will probably be dispiriting many viewers, but more analytical ones—particularly card-carrying cynics—will likely find their worldviews supported and rally to its harsh message, even while rooting for most of its characters to fail spectacularly and receive their comeuppance. Like it or hate it, this one definitely has its finger on the pulse of late-stage capitalism.

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