Bad Banks

3 out of 5

Created by: Oliver Kienle

covers seasons 1 and 2

I’m crazily uncertain for what audience, exactly, Bad Banks is intended. I mean, I watched it, and as it made it to a second season I assume others did as well, so I guess we qualify, but I wonder how many of those viewers shared my same puzzlement throughout watching banker Jana Liekam’s (Paul Beer) questionable decision making in the high stakes worlds of futures trading, and investment banking, wondering if we’re supposed to like Jana, or feel for her in any way. This isn’t a Breaking Bad in which we witness the moral decay of a character: Jana’s pretty much clearly broken from the start, first emotionally wrecked by losing her job and then doing a 100% bipolar reversal when agreeing to be part of banking executive Christelle Leblanc’s (Désirée Nosbusch) power play machinations, willing to offer up key information on Leblanc’s business adversaries with the executive’s assistance in getting Jana rehired elsewhere. This is the first of many backroom dealings which will fuel the show, and also sets up steps which will presumably lead to what we see in the series’ cold open – banks collapsing and defaulting; ATMs tapped out as people try to withdraw their devaluing money in a hurry. Along with Jana’s fire / rehire fury being contrasted against her home life with a seemingly caring boyfriend, we do seem to be setting up a character arc, but that’s not really the case – Liekam, like all of her banking associates and bosses, feeds off of the make or break nature of their jobs, and the promise of settling down is already an afterthought by the time we join up with her; she is very clearly willing to sacrifice everything (anything) for a temporary success.

That, I suppose, is Bad Banks’ m.o., something akin to Wolf of Wall Street, and gets us closer to understanding the appeal of the show: studying the personas that thrive in this environment, perhaps partially seeing similarities with ourselves, where they exist, and then partially seething with disbelief – as one might when addicted to spectacle-themed reality shows – at how little regard the people we’re watching can have for anyone besides themselves. Are we jealous? Are we frustrated by the likely realities of what we see?

And if the show pushed this a bit, it could be a much stronger series. Instead, it toes the line between fleshing out its characters, and then playing their wins and losses as TV drama. As such, it’s never quite realistic feeling enough to elicit any deeper feelings, but it’s far from being campy and overwrought enough to function as a banking soap opera. It even fails that cold open, treating its promised economical collapse as just another plot point; this is exchanged for focusing on propping up small businesses (and then ruining them, when they’re no longer profitable) for company clout in the second season.

Beers, and the rest of the cast, are eminently watchable, but they all fall into this same muddle of showing human characteristics, and then written as complete heels. We do feel the tension of the mega bucks deals that are going on, and that is another angle of its hook: just like the bankers, we’re waiting for the shoe to drop. And it does, over and over, only to be rescued by some other mega deal. Again, there’s something interesting there – how far are we willing to “support” horrible people – but besides putting the groundwork for that question on screen, Bad Banks isn’t interested in pushing it, and distracts with a lot of financial lingo and wizardry in its place.