'This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy': TV Review

Smart and clever are not the same things.
2/22/2019

Amazon Studios' fun, frenetic docuseries unravels the complexities of the world's money systems, but can't seem to shake its glib and smug tone.

Everybody knows those dudes. Those alcohol-inflated tech or finance dudes who hang out at hotel rooftop bars — slightly dewy in their button-down shirts — and pontificate on topics you have some knowledge of, from reading The Atlantic or whatever, but no real expertise in. They're not jerks, and their information can be pretty interesting. But you also feel the need to step away after a while to give yourself a breather from all that bro-y energy.

Amazon Studios' whizzbang docuseries This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy is the equivalent of these well-meaning mansplainers. Hosted by actor turned civil servant Kal Penn (House, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle), the eight-part series circumnavigates various matters related to global money exchange, each fast-paced episode devoted to niche tendrils that spiral out of this sticky, intricate system.

From exposing the underground culture of money laundering to guiding us through the correlation between affluence and vile behavior, the slick narrative blasts you through layers of complex global infrastructure while utilizing onscreen footnotes, cutesy metaphors, stock footage flash cuts, a dubstep soundtrack and comedic cutaway skits to spoon-feed us the information.

If this sounds like NPR podcast Planet Money meets the McKayvian School of Frenetic Filmmaking, well, it is. Adam McKay produces This Giant Beast alongside NPR journalist Adam Davidson (and Will Ferrell, among others). The series is as intellectually fascinating as it is stylistically frustrating.

The creators' sin isn't making dense topics entertaining — which they do for the most part — but the exhausting methods by which they do it. Take the gobbledygook series name, which is as bloated as a Poli Sci major's senior thesis title: This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy: The Worldwide Impact of Excavating My Colon Through the Use of My Own Cranium.

McKay, driven to make the fundamentally unsexy very, very sexy, is known for mining complex socioeconomic apparati with aesthetic urgency: a sensory experience which works so well in The Big Short and made me want to pop my eyes out in Vice (a movie that tells you to hate a bunch of rich, smug men gleeful at their own brilliance — which is exactly how I’d describe the team that made it).

The show's beats will feel familiar if you've seen these films, each episode of This Giant Beast relying on multiple glib "explainer" segments starring celebrities, from Joel McHale to Meghan Trainor, that serve more to distract from the subject at hand than to enlighten on it. Also, they're just cringingly unfunny. If this documentary series would stop tripping over itself in the pursuit of visual ingenuity and narrative accessibility, then maybe it would succeed better in educating its audience.

That being said, the episodes are indeed engaging, the producers whisking viewers all over the world — the agricultural centers of Thailand, the banking institutions of Cyprus — to speak with an array of subject experts. Unlike drier docuseries, which often over-rely on journalists and writers as talking heads, This Giant Beast widens the field, allowing us to hear from the on-the-ground Cassandras of the world: lawyers, researchers, engineers, informants, whistleblowers, government specialists and more.

The producing team is very interested in hearing from outsiders who became insiders and insiders who became outsiders. And Penn conducts these interviews while riding Segways, drinking champagne and swimming in the sea. (Playfully calling your interviewee "Fucker!" for splashing ocean water on you is certainly one way to ingratiate yourself with a subject.) 

Penn himself isn't exactly magnetic, per se, coming off more like the gunner in your Sociology 100 class than an at-ease performer. But he does have journalistic instincts and isn't afraid to ask straightforward questions. (In fact, it's frankly amazing that the producers got most of this footage past legal.) Some of the best moments are when Penn is genuinely nonplussed by the people he's speaking with, such as the modern-day fop and pathological arriviste who teaches him about the brand of being an asshole. (What other personality could you have if your claim to fame is selling luxury pocket squares?)

The show is a bright and airy way to stimulate your curiosity about the world. In the first three episodes alone, you learn the various techniques by which someone can hide dirty cash (launder via art auctions; set up shell corporations with the IDs of sex workers; rely on the lenient state of Delaware) or go in depth about the human rights abuses facing foreign-born indentured servants in Dubai (debt bondage to employers; dangerous working and living conditions; confiscated passports).

I do wish the series provided more historical context regarding the global networks it's surveying, which would have been useful during the episode that uncovers the vulnerability of the global rubber industry and why civilization as we know it would cease if rubber plantations were wiped out through environmental devastation. The show is particularly interested in unraveling the shadow economy, eventually discovering, “The rules are different for different people,” as one expert reports. No way — you're kidding!

Smart and clever are not the same things. Thankfully, This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy is the former. It just doesn't need to try so hard to be the latter.

Executive producers: Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, Adam Davidson, Erin Gamble, Aaron Saidman, Andy Robertson, Aliyah Silverstein, Eli Holzman, Kevin J. Messick
Premieres: Friday (Amazon Prime)