The world of Wall Street trading and investment banking are such toxic environments, it’s inconceivable that anyone could create a series about the men and women who populate it that paints them in a positive light, let alone encourages empathy. Mainstream banking culture is rife with brutal competition, with the winners usually being whoever makes more money. The CW’s new dramatic thriller “Devils” certainly portrays the moral bankruptcy that pervades elements of society where criminal capitalistic urges reign supreme, but against the backdrop of a global pandemic leaving millions jobless in austere financial times, and economic disparity hardly diminishing, it feels like a series out of time.
Based on the novel “I Diavoli” by Guido Maria Brera and acquired by The CW after its spring 2020 debut in Italy, “Devils” follows the psychological chess match that transpires between Massimo Ruggero (Alessandro Borghi), the head of trading at one of the world’s most important investment banks (the fictional NYL), and his mentor, NYL’s CEO Dominic Morgan (Patrick Dempsey, not quite in McDreamy form here), after Dominic appoints another colleague over Massimo, following a bitter promotion battle.
Early on, Morgan serves as a sort of Obi-Wan Kenobi to Borghi’s Luke, introducing him to the seemingly bewildering wizardry of international high finance and the ambiguous arenas of stock and real estate speculation. Ruggero takes the slow road to hell, as he shifts from righteous protests about the immorality of their world, to exploiting privileged information, to taking positions in trades that make him a wealthy star at NYL.
Celebrated at work for the huge commissions he’s bringing in for his firm, Massimo strikes it rich and seems to be getting everything he dreamed of, although, in the process, viewers are expected to believe that he starts to lose sight of himself and his respective values. But is he really? Or, in his pursuits, is he so deeply immersed in that world that it becomes almost impossible for him to leave it?
On paper, this might read as riveting television, but the high-stakes theater of financial and political unscrupulousness, the intrigue of a shadowy Wikileaks-esque organization, and two unsolved murders, couldn’t be more stale.
It doesn’t help that none of the characters are particularly appealing, though maybe that’s the point. The series is called “Devils” for a reason; in essence, they all are. The demonic allegories of venality and debased ambition are apropos, and star Borghi — the award-winning Italian actor in his first English-language project — cuts a charismatic presence and delivers a believable performance as the charming yet ruthless Massimo Ruggero, full of ambition, doing whatever he can to make his way to the top.
“I was born low and so the only way I could go was up,” he says early in the series, to a key rival who was “born high” — the implication there being that the logical subsequent path for Stuart is to fall. And fall he most certainly does, literally, when he takes a dive down several stories to his death. But was it a suicide or was he pushed?
In the first five episodes provided for the press, we don’t find out. One assumes it’ll be revealed in the back half of a 10-episode first season, but the question is what ultimately propels the series forward, as Massimo becomes the main suspect in the murder investigation. Fighting to clear his name, he becomes involved in an intercontinental financial war and is forced to choose between supporting his mentor Dominic or going up against him. Without giving anything away, it should still be obvious which path he takes.
The series is teeming with characters and multiple subplots — including the mysterious death of Massimo’s ex-wife (Sallie Harmsen), who may or may not have been an escort, and the travails of an ambitious journalist (Laia Costa) with familial reasons for trying to bring down NYL — that it might be a challenge to keep up, or, in my case stay awake, because this is no Robert Altman movie. It’s clearly more plot- than character-driven and meant to be fast-paced, so there has to be some new major revelation every episode in order to keep viewers engaged. They’re just mostly vapid, essentially made for audiences with short attention spans.
The show stands as the latest in a series of pop culture products that tackle the years leading up to, and after, the 2008 financial crisis, that render the world of the moneyed in all of its moral vacuity — large, art-filled homes, pricey pads in the sky, fast cars, sex in the most unexpected places, etc. Although little effort was made in terms of production design to indicate that it’s a series set 10-15 years ago.
To its credit, it does weave in real-life headlines, with actual newsreel footage, including the Argentine debt crisis of the mid 2000s, as well as the recessions in Ireland and Greece of roughly the same period, to the Strauss-Kahn scandal, as it attempts to paint a picture of the power wielded by the world’s top financiers, who, in a way, the series wants to depict as a form of new gods.
And maybe they are, when one considers the moneyed class who are some of the most powerful people in the world, who can move markets with a tweet, influence politicians, own mass media, and the like. It’s just too bad that the series doesn’t lean into that idea more, to create something of greater consequence and of the times.
Instead, “Devils” is ultimately a glossy soap opera that takes place in multiple international locations, including London, Washington, Bavaria, and Rome. Reigning supreme are questions of character loyalty, plotlines involving bribery, backstabbing, “frontstabbing,” flashbacks and flashforwards, and fast-talking characters, all trying to get ahead, in the pursuit of more wealth and power, even if it means murder, with Dempsey doing his best Gordon Gecko impression.
And maybe that’s how it is in the real world of finance, but as a television series, it becomes tedious.
Co-starring Kasia Smutniak, Malachi Kirby, and Lars Mikkelsen, “Devils” just isn’t quite convincing enough to be the cautionary tale that it seems to want to be, and isn’t emotionally profound enough to play as tragedy. A snapshot of a time that has since changed dramatically in some ways (from Obama to Trump), while worryingly unchanged in others (financial corruption, greed, income disparity, etc), “Devils” isn’t compelling, courageous, or sharply observed enough in tackling the real-world issues to speak to today.
“Devils” premieres Wednesday October 7 at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.