Netflix's Docuseries 'Dirty Money' Is Oddly Soothing for Being All About Crime
The second season of 'Dirty Money' is out on Netflix, and I'll be watching it before bed for the rest of the week.
In times of social, economic, and political upheaval, comfort takes odd shapes. Certain stories or topics that might at first appear too severe, reminding you of the cruelties and indignities that plague the real world, can end up providing a degree of solace. While it can be tempting to retreat into the realm of fantasy, stocking up on nostalgia-tinged sitcoms or mind-numbing adventure shows, the oddly soothing rhythms of the brisk, morsel-like info-dump documentary create their own version of escapism. That's why I'm strangely excited to fall asleep watching Dirty Money for the next few nights.
Calling Netflix's financial crimes docuseries, which premiered in 2018 and returned for a six-episode Season 2 this week, "comfort food" or saying it's "relaxing" can sound like a backhanded compliment. Executive produced by the wildly prolific Alex Gibney, the filmmaker behind issue-driven documentary films HBO's recent Theranos tell-all The Inventor and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, the show is clearly designed to call attention to serious problems and often attempts to strike a note of righteous indignation. The episode about the Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist in Season 1 had a mildly whimsical tone, finding humor in the behavior of its subjects and the absurd specifics of the scenario, but most episodes exist to rile you up. These aren't exactly feel-good bedtime stories.
So, why would hour-length mini-docs examining issues like insidious payday loans, the shady money laundering operations of HSBC, and price-gouging of Valeant Pharmaceuticals help you unwind after a stressful day? If you've been staring at your Twitter feed or reading negative headlines for hours, it feels counterintuitive to open Netflix and stream "The Confidence Man," the nearly 80-minute finale of Season 1 that zeroed in on President Donald Trump's corrupt business practices. It's more of the same agonizing, overwhelming bullshit, right? Season 2 offers an episode about the President's son-in-law Jared Kushner, and he's not exactly the star you want to see on a Netflix thumbnail.
And yet I keep coming back to the show. I'd compare watching Dirty Money to the experience of listening to a slickly produced podcast or reading a glossy magazine article at the dentist's office. Though each episode is directed by a different filmmaker and covers wildly different areas of illegality, there's still a formulaic quality to the storytelling. Certain character types reoccur in each episode: the brave whistleblower, the plucky financial journalist, the reform-pushing politician, the dastardly CEO, and the guy with his face in the shadows and his voice scrubbed. The show also does an effective job of interviewing victims and putting a human face on these crimes, showing how financial malpractice involving moving numbers on a spreadsheet or encouraging unethical sales practices have tragic consequences.
The first episode of Season Two, which centers around the massive Wells Fargo fraud scandal, is a perfect example of the type of explainer-y journalism Dirty Money does so well. For people who follow financial news, flipping open the Wall Street Journal every morning or tuning into CNBC at the gym, the drama surrounding CEO John Stumpf is a widely known story, and the Dirty Money episode, directed by filmmaker Dan Krauss, makes ample use of available cable TV footage. We see Stumpf chatting it up with Jim Cramer during laudatory interviews on Mad Money and various talking heads praising the bank for its folksy charm, its humble stagecoach origin story, and its relative sturdiness during the 2008 financial crisis. Then the actual workers at the company begin to tell their stories, describing a culture of constant pressure and predatory business practices.
Why is it calming? Like Gibney's 2005 Enron documentary, which I have a perhaps unhealthy obsession with, or his entertaining adaptation of Lawrence Writght's nonfiction book about Scientology, Going Clear, Dirty Money makes complicated real-life narratives feel like something you can wrap your head around. They deliver a perhaps illusionary jolt of authority. Again, podcasts often offer a similar transaction: Give us an hour of your time and we'll make you an expert.
If you watch enough episodes of Dirty Money, it's easy to come to the conclusion that capitalism is broken in some profound way. At the same time, the series only occasionally grapples with whether the horrible exploitation it portrays is an inevitable result of the current conditions of the global economy; the smooth aesthetics of the show, the helpful animation and the lighting of the interviews, help sell an idea of competence. It's not an especially hopeful show, but the heroes of Dirty Money tend to believe in the guiding power of regulation and the rule of law. The money isn't the problem, you see -- it's the dirt.