Bad Banks begins with a banking system in crisis. One of Germany’s biggest financial institutions teeters on the point of failure, with long queues at ATMs as people desperately try – and sometimes fail – to get their money out in time before the collapse.
The days when a drama set in the world of high finance could simply luxuriate in all the sharp clothes and big offices are over. Today’s audiences know too much about who’s really paying for the financial world’s excesses.
It’s not as much fun when we know we’re the ones footing the bill.
A drama that shines a light on the dark side of finance is nothing new; everything from Wall Street to The Wolf of Wall Street to Billions has happily pointed out that high finance attracts some pretty low types. What makes Bad Banks different is that the focus isn’t on a shouty man in suspenders, but a young woman - twenty-five year-old Jana Liekam (Paula Beer), who’s already a serious up-and-comer in the world of global finance. Or at least, she is until she’s fired from her job at Luxenbourg’s prestigious Credit International Financial Group for reason that have nothing to do with her performance and everything to do with her arrogant boss, Luc Jacoby (Marc Limpach).
Fortunately her department head at Credit International, Christelle Leblanc (Désirée Nosbusch) extends a helping hand and hooks her up with an offer of what seems to be her dream job at their rival, Deutsche Global. One problem: they’re located in Frankfurt, which means she’ll have to leave her partner (and his five year-old daughter) behind. Still, she can’t pass up an opportunity this good – especially when it gives her the chance to stick it to her old employer.
At first it seems like the stage is set for some straightforward gender revenge. Her boorish, entitled male boss treats her badly largely because in this particular boy’s club he can; a female co-worker helps her out because in a business as male-driven as finance, women have to help each other out every chance they get. But things soon prove to be a little more nuanced.
While Jana settles in under the watchful eye of her new boss, Gabriel Fenger (Barry Atsma) – a man who openly admits he doesn’t quite get how the complex world of global finance works, because nobody really does – she soon realises that Christelle didn’t get her this job simply out of the goodness of her heart. She’s looking for inside information in exchange for getting her this plum job, and Jana (who hasn’t been above using inside information for her own ends) soon discovers that if you want to live a morally pure life, then banking really isn’t for you.
Not so long ago, this would be your typical dance-with-the-devil story, where the young up and comer discovers the real price she’ll have to pay to be successful in a business where everything has a price. But Bad Banks is too smart for those clichés. Jana is no innocent blindly stumbling into waters over her head: she’s as much a player as those around her. The series makes it clear from the start that she doesn’t have their expertise and connections the big players have; Luc gets to treat her like garbage because his father owns the company. But it’s just as clear that she’s not somebody that makes the same mistake twice.
One of the big pleasures of this series is seeing a female lead who plays by the men’s rules. Jana wants money and power just like everyone else, and while she might not be quite as ruthless as those around her, she’s still someone willing to do what it takes to come out on top.
Bad Banks doesn’t overtly criticise the banking system – the numerous schemes and double-crosses and financial fudges are just part of the roller-coaster ride – but it’s telling that the closest thing it has to a good guy is still someone willing to lie and steal to get the results she wants.
Of course, lying and stealing make for great television. Jana’s up against a legion of shady types and ruthless schemers as she tries to finalise a major deal that’s majorly suspicious; this is pure “who can you trust” television. But at the core of it all remains the toll all this is taking on Jana, who’s still young enough to avoid the traps her bosses have fallen into. The big question hanging over this series isn’t whether she’ll break the rules; it’s whether breaking the rules will end up breaking her.
Bad Banks season 1 is streaming now at SBS On Demand:
Bad Banks is back for a second season
In season 2 Bad Banks again takes us on a daredevil journey into the world of high finance, which after the crisis is more than ever faced with massive upheaval. New players are stirring up the traditional system and the game of power, manipulation, and personal ambition continues. But this time it’s all or nothing for our characters. Never before has the tightrope between triumph and failure been so precarious, driving our heroes to new depths. A battle of the generations at the end of which lies the question of will determine the future of the system.
Bad Banks season 2 is streaming now at SBS On Demand: