A bathtub-soaking Margot Robbie doesn’t explain mortgage bonds in This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy, but executive producer Adam McKay’s Amazon series about all things financial still milks the novelty of celebrities using humor to raise civic awareness. The director of many silly Will Ferrell comedies is deeply invested in politics and economics: Some comedians fuel their acts with rage about racial injustice; McKay’s engine runs on Wall Street. McKay, whose work on The Big Short, Vice, Succession, and even “The Unbelievably Sweet Alpacas” from We the Economy: 20 Short Films You Can’t Afford to Miss may suggest that he’s stuck in an “everything looks like a nail” situation, but as his toolbox grows, so does the effectiveness of his anxiety.
In the the three episodes of This Giant Beast made available to critics, host Kal Penn acts as a financial Anthony Bourdain, putting niche experts at ease and guiding them along while he mostly sits there shocked. These segments slice through the tonal jumble of the satirical pieces setting them up: As when your favorite comic lands a national commercial, silliness is always a form of selling, only this time they’re hocking finance reform rather than Verizon. But if someone’s sitting down to watch a 45-minute episode of something called This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy, they probably don’t need their hands held this much. (The satire might not feel so out of place if the series didn’t have the cutesy trappings of upbeat Discovery Channel documentaries, with bouncy music and cartoon cutaways reminding you how relatable it all is.)
As a result, This Giant Beast’s topical overviews feel like the filmed version of not one but multiple college syllabi: Bill Nye the Science Guy for grown-ups, without the visual interest of the hard sciences. The topics are of desperate importance, the tone is chummy yet bewildered, and the structure picks up and drops topics like an undergraduate searching for his major. And, yes, series director David Laven comes from Viceland. His co-director, Lee Farber, comes from The Soup. These styles, as you might imagine, clash. And since nothing is melting, exploding, or being shot, it’s missing all the things shows like Mythbusters lean on when viewers are nodding off.
It’s still an informative presentation, but there’s a reason why explanatory TV ends up skewing towards specific, kinetic topics. The sketches, with celebrity cameos explaining new terms (i.e. Joel McHale as a cash business consultant), and the settings, like a monster truck rally, try to remedy this, but the fast-paced edutainment is best when it ignores all its comedy connections and goes straight. When This Giant Beast simply listens to brazen criminals matter-of-factly talk about how the world really works, you finally get the addictive, infuriating reason to become as obsessed you’ve been waiting for.
Ultimately, This Giant Beast works its magic through access more than anything else—the kind of thing McKay and his Amazon-sized budget have on overworked investigative journalists. When the series actually digs into the practicalities of its subject matter—like the supply chain of the rubber industry—rather than high-level definitions or current-event tie-ins, it becomes more than something the cool macroeconomics professor shows during class. The education/humor relationship loses its shot/chaser dynamic and begins working in a far more effective way.
In a fictional narrative, the gags and the movie stars help complexity go down smooth—but not much else. In non-fiction, a sense of humor and A-list names open doors and loosen tongues. As with something like No Reservations or Parts Unknown, experts might already know about the prevalence of money laundering in Cyprus, but the very act of bringing this knowledge into the mainstream—by, say, interviewing a Cypriot cab driver who offers to be the director of Penn’s shell company—is a radical act. As McKay figures out his end goals, his methods are getting better.
The series’ failings, whether grating sketches or dubstep-scored outros that gloss over more dots than the episode managed to connect in the first place, don’t erase what This Giant Beast has to offer, but they do place large traffic cones around its periphery. And even with these warning signs—the aesthetic equivalent of a disclaimer—it generates the illusion of expertise: You get the feeling that a lot of capitalism mansplaining will come from people who watch the show. A lot. The genre of adult-skewing edutainment is better simply for the existence of a show focusing on corruption rather than sword forging, psychoactive substances, or the factory-to-consumer story of railway bridge ties (the real subject of a How It’s Made episode). This Giant Beast can be as off-putting and superficial as the psychopathic CEOs it studies, which makes it an imperfect step forward—but it’s a step forward nonetheless.
This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy premieres Friday, Feb. 22 on Amazon Prime Video.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.