On the polished heels of BBC’s Industry comes another finance drama, which aired in Italy last April but has only just made it here. Based on a novel from 2014, Devils is similarly set at a fictional investment bank, “New York London”, during the 2010 Greek debt crisis. As with Industry, a fair portion of the action takes place on the trading floor and the first episode revolves around a death in the workplace to remind everyone – if the numbers weren’t enough – that the stakes are higher than they are at your office.
That’s where the similarities end. For all its sex and drugs, the BBC series was at heart a coming-of-age drama about young people making their way in a strange world. It built a specific, detailed universe and trusted its audience to come along on the journey. By contrast, Devils is almost apologetic about its setting, bombarding us with ridiculous twists and snazzy visuals and fast cars to alleviate the mumbo-jumbo.
At the start of the first episode, Massimo Ruggero (Alessandro Borghi), NYL’s head of trading and rising star, has just made his employer a quarter of a billion by shorting Greece. Dominic Morgan (Patrick Dempsey, channelling Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate), the American CEO, is eyeing him up for a promotion, to “Vice-CEO.” It’s not a rank I’ve heard of, and a quick search suggests it doesn’t exist at any of the real banks, but it suits the plot.
Standing in Massimo’s way is Edward Stuart (Ben Miles). Where Massimo is a self-made Italian from a poor fishing village, Stuart is a stuffy English public schoolboy, resentful of this Mediterranean interloper. Out for drinks to celebrate his triumph with his team, Massimo receives an anonymous invitation to a hotel room. Waiting for him is an escort, who turns out to be his estranged wife Carrie (Sallie Harmsen), who runs off in tears when she sees him.
Determined to find out who has set him up, Massimo starts making enquiries. Before long, he has been drawn into a full-blown conspiracy thriller complete with Wikileaks-style hacktivists, private investigators and secret recording devices. The first episode crams in a dizzying amount of plot, with escalating levels of ridiculousness. The cast do what they can, but the script, which starts by quoting from David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech and gets less subtle from there, rarely passes up on an opportunity to show when it can tell. Amid all the frenetic shenanigans none of the characters is given space to develop, even Massimo, whose handsome face remains mostly inscrutable.
Lurking somewhere beneath the action is a vaguely moralistic tone, highlighted by the use of real news footage from the period. At times, it feels like Devils can’t decide whether it wants us to commit to its nonsense or be gently scolded for our complicity in the financial system it explores. This is hardly the programme’s fault, but after a year of pandemic, the European debt crisis feels like an oddly quaint subject. Despite its frantic pace and shiny surfaces, Devils lapses into dullness more often than it ought to. You don’t expect to like these guys, but they’re meant to have a few good tunes.
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