Irrational Exuberance

TNT'S Bull deals in raw enthusiasm for the new finance economy. Why is it such a hard sell?

Michael Chernuchin, creator, executive producer, and head writer of TNT's new Bull, is the high master of middlebrow television. He could probably turn filling a gas tank or fixing a toilet into one of those socially conscious reform dramas that Viewers for Quality Television adore. A sufficiently skilled craftsman to have earned a shedful of awards for writing and producing, Chernuchin scripted more than 50 episodes of the still-engaging cops-and-morality saga Law & Order; executive-produced Michael Hayes, a failed return home by David Caruso as a good-hearted lawyer; and did the same for Brooklyn South, a handsomely made Hill Street Blues knockoff about cops and, well, social consciousness.

Chernuchin's newest outing attempts to cover the same emotional, ethical, and stylistic territory. The dialogue zings, cameras dart faster than thought itself, and all the well-groomed characters stride briskly and spit bons mots with an enthusiasm usually reserved for new-economy IPOs. Anchored by acting vets such as Donald Moffat, a master of patrician rectitude and Wasp frostiness, and Stanley Tucci, fast becoming one of our most interesting actors, Bull (Tuesdays 9:00 p.m. on TNT; Channel 21 in Minneapolis, 29 in St. Paul) tries to do for Wall Street what The Practice does for lawyers and ER does for doctors: render them narratively interesting and morally compelling--soap-opera projections for a professional-managerial class that will never tire of seeing itself fight the good fight.

If only the NASDAQ controlled the Nielsens: Actors George Newbern and Malik Yoba try to make finance sexy in Bull
If only the NASDAQ controlled the Nielsens: Actors George Newbern and Malik Yoba try to make finance sexy in Bull

And yet seemingly nobody involved with this sprawling, responsible, socially conscious melodrama noticed, or had the nerve to point out, that investment banking hardly furnishes the material for sprawling, responsible, socially conscious melodrama. If it does (not, to my mind, a tenable proposition), what we're tendered here is ludicrously insufficient: Hotshot broker Robert ("Ditto") Roberts III flees the old-line house run by his grandfather, Robert ("The Kaiser") Roberts I, to start his own firm, taking with him the usual assortment of diverse colleagues--a black male, a white ethnic, and a couple of high-powered but emotionally tenuous white women. (Mini-assignment: When did this new patterning of diversity start? If the classic WWII common-man array comprised white guy in charge, Jew, Irishman, Italian, hick, and guy from Brooklyn-- Saving Private Ryan revisits this vision, wholly unironically--when did the new assemblage replace it? And is that a change for the better or worse? Three pages, due next week.)

In this case, the black male (an unaccountably subdued Malik Yoba) is a Harvard grad whose failure to regard himself as black will furnish a major plot line: "Am I related to you?" he growls at a black passerby who has the temerity to admire a brother who owns a Porsche. Alicia Coppola plays the ethnic, a working-class Italian from Queens. And the ice-queen blonde (see: Susan Dey, Kelli Williams) is handled with a fine sense of smudged refinement by Alison Jeffers. This trio aside, the supporting players are sneers from a Tom Wolfe sketch. There's an untermenschy Jewish lawyer whose exhausting shrugging and mugging suggests early Woody Allen in the presence of goyim. Worse, there's the simple-but-kind coffee vendor (the show's other black character) who serves up common wisdom along with the Sweet'N Low. Many of the lead and supporting actors have escaped the teen ghetto for this more serious fare--Buffy and its progeny provided many their start--and Chernuchin gives them a great deal to do. They work the phones, sweet-talk prospects, and rattle papers with a compelling sense of stern discipline and moral gravity.

But why? Someone here appears to have been reading, far too uncritically, a great many Michael Lewis paeans to the creativity of high finance. "It's not about the money," Ditto explains. "It's about being at the heart of the world." Let me dissent: Of course it's about the money. Otherwise, this show could be about plumbers. From everything we see, Ditto and pals broke with Grandpa in order to "push the envelope, climb the ziggurat. Don't you want to look back and think, I've created something?" The Yoba character's sale of difficult Brazilian bonds is treated as an enormous and praiseworthy achievement (WTO protesters: Head down to TNT's Atlanta headquarters pronto!). And when Coppola's character joins the firm, she points everyone toward the bottom line: "C'mon, people, let's make some green!"

Fine, hope they make a mint. But where is our sympathy supposed to lie? Rich men vs. rich kids isn't exactly Good vs. Evil. Grandpa engages in insider trading and spies on his grandson, but that hardly renders Ditto and his fellow suits admirable: They don't defend the weak, cure the sick, or comfort the afflicted. They do, however, get one of Grandpa's clients a better rate on T-bills.

Bull needs to blast through all this propaganda, the way Boiler Room nailed the modest means underlying the big dreams of mooks with sky-high hair. Why should bluebloods get off any easier? Markets come and markets go, and unchecked enthusiasm remains--as John Kenneth Galbraith's useful A Short History of Financial Euphoria observes, every generation discovers a particular commodity that will render old economic models obsolete, from tulips to radio to Yahoo. A darker comic touch, or perhaps the profanity that pay cable would allow, would escort us deeper into this culture. As things stand, a seduction scene that screams for irony is played straight, Malik Yoba nearly talking a woman into bed by running step-by-step through the famed Brazilian-bond deal.

Still, the performances here are good enough to raise your market cap. Donald Moffat glowers and schemes so adroitly that he doesn't need a mustache to twirl. And Stanley Tucci, on board for only six episodes thus far, doles out his usual puckish amorality with a fine sense of suspense, as if he himself can't decide whether he's going to do the right thing or sell his partners down the river for momentary gain. Tucci, playing the confusingly named Hunter Lasky (a Jewish Wasp?), is the firm's rainmaker. Broadening his portfolio, Hunter sleeps with the Alison Jeffers character on the side, and alone among these actors conveys the flexible moral accounting that gets such people through the day. "I learned a long time ago to forgive myself whenever I do something that's unforgivable," he explains.

In lines as incisive as that, Chernuchin hints at the kind of distance a subject like this cries out for. Not simple irony, necessarily, but some saving touch of unease that would puncture these economic and artistic bubbles--lest Greenspan get to them first.

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