From Serial to Making a Murderer to American Crime Story, true crime is having a moment. While each of those works uses a different mode of storytelling to explore the nuances of a real-life case, they all focus on particularly lurid murders and mysterious circumstances that beg to be unraveled. But can the genre be expanded to include white-collar crime? ABC’s new miniseries, Madoff, which eschews taking a broader look at American’s broken financial system in favor of telling the more intimate story of a criminal enterprise, seems to think so.
Almost everything comes in first-person from the perspective of Bernie Madoff (Richard Dreyfuss) himself—a huge benefit to the ABC miniseries, which airs in two two-hour chunks on Tuesday and Wednesday. Dreyfuss is a spirited actor who doesn’t get enough opportunities these days to cut loose, and he plays Madoff with the exact mix of charm, chutzpah, and extreme denial you would hope for from the notorious fraudster. Madoff is undeniably compelling in the ways it gives its audience the thrill of watching someone flagrantly break the law. But in the end it feels too puffy and cute—a story of someone spiraling into ruin that doesn’t communicate the full impact of disgrace or the sheer scale of Madoff’s crimes. Madoff is true crime as an airy soap opera—easy to watch, easy to forget.
It doesn’t help that the miniseries feels like an ABC show through and through, from the jangly placeholder score that sounds copy-pasted out of an episode of Dirty Sexy Money to the uninspired visuals (smash-cuts to stock images of a prison every time Bernie thinks the Feds are onto him). At the helm are the writer Ben Robbins (whose previous credit is two episodes of the true-crime series Final Witness) and the director Raymond De Felitta, who mostly makes small New York-set indies like City Island and Rob the Mob. Ultimately, Madoff lacks the highbrow sheen and salty language that will presumably grace HBO’s upcoming Madoff effort, which stars Robert De Niro and is directed by Barry Levinson.
Madoff keeps things oddly light-hearted, considering the weight of the ex-financier’s crimes. To be sure, Dreyfuss excels at disguising Bernie’s worst traits beneath an avuncular, if tetchy, public persona. But the show is overlong at four hours, and only really at its best when it’s focusing on the mechanics of the biggest financial fraud in American history. Scenes portraying the extended Madoff family—from Bernie’s supportive wife, Ruth (Blythe Danner), to his sons and nephews who variously fought cancer and battled internally over their positions in the firm—ultimately feel like a distraction, and once the family drama erupts into a legal feud, the show devolves into scene after scene of hopeless yelling and recrimination. The real-life implosion of the Madoffs is dark beyond belief, but the show feels too tonally erratic to earn its sad final act.
The best true-crime shows, like HBO’s hit The Jinx, thrive when they focus on the psychological underpinnings of their protagonists, but Madoff struggles in that regard. Viewers understand that he wanted to protect his family from the reality of their ill-gotten wealth, but they get no insight into just how he could delude himself that building their lives on a fraudulent foundation would keep them remotely safe. There are glimpses of just how much of a sociopath Madoff could be—taking the modest life savings of his secretary, for example—but even as he does these horrible things, he just seems like an adorably grumpy grandpa. That was part of Madoff’s appeal, of course, and Dreyfuss captures just how charming and knowing he must have seemed to pull off such flagrant criminal acts.
But all Madoff really answers is the “how”—how he and a few close employees kept the SEC from discovering the truth for years, how Madoff hooked new investors and reassured existing ones even as people started to sniff around the bizarre infallibility of his financial returns. Crucially, the series never gets at the “why.” Madoff feels like a network-TV attempt at something much darker and deeper, but outside of its charismatic leading man, there isn’t much to recommend it. If you want a basic primer on what went into the most legendary Ponzi scheme in history, the show delivers it, though it doesn’t do it briskly. But putting four hours of your time into something that you could mostly glean from Wikipedia might be called a bad investment.