For a series that debuts with such a splashy, brutal death, Devils is oddly bloodless. The setting of the high-stakes financial firm that its characters inhabit is cast in a faint blue-gray monotone, nearly as colorless as water. Devils’ pair of compelling leads are tasked with most of the heavy lifting, hopefully drawing the viewer into the unfamiliar, complicated world of European banking. Unfortunately, the pilot is too detached to be truly successful: even the camera angles are far removed, faces often difficult to discern as characters appear behind various levels of glass.
Devils unfortunately begins with one of those explanatory talks to a group that obviously knows what the speaker is discussing—the explanation is transparently only for the viewer (a character later outlines the parameters of short-selling stock, only to have another respond, “I know what shorting stock means”). Here Dominic (Patrick Dempsey), the head of a large London bank, tells David Foster Wallace’s story about fish who don’t know they’re in water, or something. The story’s an allegory for the world of finance, positing that not only does that industry control the world, but they’re the only ones who realize that they do so. Since Devils suggests that its featured firm is the one that caused all the chaos in the Greek financial markets, maybe the show is on to something.
Dempsey is an odd choice for Dominic, as he usually portrays characters that fall more on the sympathetic side than the cutthroat side (although he did play a two-timing lothario in the movie Valentine’s Day, loathe as I am to admit that I’ve actually seen Valentine’s Day). This is a man so committed to his impenetrable façade, he doesn’t even choke up when delivering the eulogy at his own son’s memorial service. Dominic does show actual enthusiasm about Massimo (Alessandro Borghi in his first English-speaking role), though, a transfer from Italy who made the bank hundreds of millions of dollars during that whole Greece thing. Massimo has a devoted and immediately forgettable team, as well as an MIA drug addict wife. He’s jonesing for a promotion (merely for the power aspect, as it’s established that he already has more money than he could possibly spend), but is in danger of being blocked by Ed Stuart (Ben Miles), a blue-blooded Englishman who’s prejudiced against Massimo because he’s Italian (we see Ed ceaselessly complaining to Dominic about Massimo from a distance, even at Dominic’s son’s memorial).
Out celebrating his probable promotion, Massimo immediately gets lured to a dark hotel room with foreboding, stripy lighting, and the promise of a lap dance. But the lap dancer turns out to be his wife, Carrie. What? We’re all of 10 minutes into this show at this point, way too early for this presumably devastating twist to have any agency.
Honestly, far and away the most interesting Devils character is Oliver Harris (Malachi Kirby) a enterprising whiz kid college student Massimo hires to dig up dirt on Ben (who presumably arranged the lap dance to throw Massimo off his game) and to track down Carrie. Maybe because he’s the only one who looks like he’s enjoying himself at all, what with 60-quid cheeseburgers and welcome stacks of cash. Oliver spies on Ed’s fancy business lunch and is able to speculate that the CEO of the health-care company Ed is heavily invested in is ill (even though the men sitting at the same lunch table with him are oblivious?) Massimo uses a Wikileaks-type writer to make this possibly false information go viral, causing the health-care company’s stock to tank, losing his own company $25 million. I’m no financial wizard, as my bank accounts will attest, but wouldn’t that be bad for the whole bank, and not just Ed? Isn’t that an amount egregious enough to deserve more than a “You should have told me” from Dominic? Ed certainly understands how dire the situation is, as it leads to him taking a swan dive right through the pristine glass building, unfortunately landing right in front of his wife on the white granite floor.
Though he drove Ed to his death, Massimo doesn’t even end up getting the promotion anyway, once news leaks back to Dominic that Carrie is back and overdosing in a flophouse. He yells at Massimo, “Do you have any idea how much it takes to sit in this chair?”—hey, that’s why it’s called work, buddy. It’s why they’re paying you and not the other way around. Try coal mining or ditch-digging for awhile if you want to see how tough work can be.
Ed actually garners the most sympathy of anyone in the episode, as these are just terrible people all around. As the title suggests, Devils takes The Usual Suspects’ “the devil’s greatest trick was convincing us he didn’t exist” motto even further: Not only does the devil exist, but he is us. Or rather, he is definitely these guys, as Massimo attempts to come to grips with the fact that he caused a man to lose his life for his own purposes, which he didn’t even achieve. He barely blinks. But the premiere fails to make us truly care about any of them. Camus would have a field day with this entire office.
European viewers who have already seen the series (The CW purchased it from Sky Italia and Lux Vide, based on the novel I Diavoli by Italian banker Guido Maria Breraby) hint that it improves as it goes on. Let’s hope so. But in the meantime, in the U.S. at least, Devils looks like a pretty tough sell. After all, we’re getting dicked around by rich people in power on a daily basis in this country; why would we want to witness these types of unscrupulous villains in our off hours as well, without even a shred of humor or humanity to keep us engaged?