Binge or Purge?: This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy.
Vice may not have netted Adam McKay an Oscar, but his snarky and informative docu-series on Amazon is pure gold.
After having seen The Big Short and Vice, I expected Adam McKay’s new Amazon series to be very angry. It is…but not quite in the way I thought. Like the best moments of The Big Short, it is usefully angry. It is also wildly informative, and thanks to host Kal Penn, quite funny. Over the course of eight episodes, it covers economic topics such as counterfeiting, money laundering, and the growing scarcity of natural resources. It’s primary purpose is to name and shame the worst actors and practices in the modern global economy, but it does so with style and character, making this a fantastic dip into “Econ 101 for Jerks.”
This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy. (Amazon)
Kal Penn (Harold and Kumar) takes viewers around the world of global capital, from the shady security traders of Wall Street, to the hidden island tax havens of Russian oligarchs, to the money laundering hubs of Cypress. Along the way he and several guests (often former bad actors on the economic stage) explain the intricacies of the dark corners of the economy.
Episode 1: Money Laundering – A How To Guide.
Money laundering has become ubiquitous in the modern global economy. From drug and arms dealers, to terrorists, to politically connected fraudsters, everyone needs to make their dirty money clean these days. Whole hubs of spectacular opulence have sprung up in places like Dubai and Cypress, all based on the thinly veiled promise to make illicit funds look legit. Kal Penn talks with several highly placed individuals on both sides of the law when it comes to money laundering, looking to expose just how wide-spread and normalized this crime has become.
The initial episode of this show nails the tone, pace, and style. Kal Penn leans on his “fish out of water” comedic persona, while leveraging his deep insight into politics and culture. He manages to penetrate more deeply into the issue by hiding behind a joke than an investigative journalist might. Many times his ingenue act gets a big time player to say more than they probably should. The show punctuates its narrative arc with some light comedy, and uses skits and segues to explain any of the arcane terms. McKay is sure to make sure you know everything you need to by the time the show is over, and Penn helps make sure you know probably more than his targets hoped you would.
Episode 2: Are Rich People Dicks or Do Dicks Get Rich?
There is an assumption in pop culture that aggressive behavior is hallmark of movers and shakers. There are no shortage of professional assholes out there happy to turn you into an obnoxious alpha, with promises of nonstop conquests in the boardroom and bedroom. Kal Penn examines this trope, to suss out if dickishness is really correlated with success, and why that may be.
The second episode seemed at first to be just a swipe at low hanging fruit. The “alpha bro” is a perennial target of hatred in the modern culture. Luckily, the show pivots quickly away from a simple “why are rich people such goddamn assholes?” tact. By the end of the episode, all sorts of baked-in assumptions about culture and status are explored. It’s not an episode that really gives much of a call to action, but it does cover its topics with style and depth. I especially love how it completely demolished the hand-waiving appeal to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the free market” that most assholes make as they actively rig the system against said invisible hand.
Episode 3: The Rubber Episode.
The commodities market is at once one of the most important aspects of our economy and one of the least sexy. This episode explores the way the market functions from the fields to the trading floor by starting with an extremely important but deeply unsexy product: natural rubber.
This episode is packed with facts. Actionable facts. Not only do we get a robust understanding of commodities, but we get a clarion call for conservation of the incredibly precarious rubber market. From planes to dildos, we rely on natural rubber every day (OK, your mileage may vary on that point…) Despite its vital importance, the vagaries of the commodities market means the supply is highly concentrated, vastly unfair to the low level producers, and just one plant pandemic away from sending our asses back to the stone age. This episode handles it all deftly, building knowledge and outrage in equal measure.
Binge or Purge?
Binge. I found this docu-series to be funnier and more informative than other recent attempts at the genre (looking at you, Bill Nye!) Kal Penn is sharp as a laser as the host, weaponizing his fantastic sense of humor to get the goods from his guests. The skits are nearly all winners, packed with a who’s who of modern sketch comedy not coming from SNL. Adam McKay channels the best moments of his films to turn moral outrage into actionable sentiment. If you think our modern global economy is fucked…you’re right. Luckily, This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy is a step in the right direction of learning how to get it un-fucked.