“This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy” auditions its audience with its title — a double-barreled burst of affectation that one will either find promisingly offbeat or reaching a bit too hard to impress. The Amazon docuseries, hosted by Kal Penn but defined by the voice of executive producer Adam McKay, is likely to be as divisive. Its attempts to clarify certain undeniably important aspects of life under the present economic system are well-meant, worthy in theory, and likely to appeal to that sizable portion of the audience that’s grown accustomed to the lecturing streak that’s eaten up topical comedy on TV. But for all its flair, the series, like its giant, beastly, title, expends more energy speaking than it does finding something to say.
The show follows Penn as he seeks to crack some essential question of 2010s-era capitalism: How, say, does money laundering work? And what can a potential global rubber shortage teach us about the precarity of the systems on which we rely? Penn, as amiable a presence here as he’s been throughout a career ignited by the “Harold and Kumar” films, is pleasant company, but feels unduly scripted. His talking points, purposefully naive so as to meet a hypothetical audience where they are, feel as though this Obama White House alumnus (he worked there for a little over a year) is dumbing himself down. He feels less like Kal Penn than like Penn playing a Chauncey Gardiner type. And, worse still given the implicit promise of the show, his jokes too rarely land.
Penn can’t quite nail either tone at which the show is aiming — which is hardly his fault. The show’s modes, explain-it-to-me-slowly didacticism and outlandish spoof, have never coexisted quite as uneasily, and producer McKay has tried a couple of times before. The director’s recent style of cinematic storytelling — in films like “The Big Short” and “Vice,” a nominee in several top categories at the upcoming Academy Awards — is instantly recognizable, so much so that certain tricks can be spotted as obvious thefts from his past work. (Meghan Trainor, here, explains the futures market in a glitzy cutaway sequence, just as Selena Gomez delivered a seminar on collateralized debt obligations in “The Big Short.”) McKay discusses issues of global import, like the global economic collapse of 2008 or the consequential life of Dick Cheney, with a tendency towards delivering homily and a zany, irreverent streak that makes clear that he takes nothing too seriously apart from the sound of his voice.
To wit: During a sequence meant to demonstrate how laborious the removal of liquid rubber from trees is, Penn narrates, “like a condom, latex is tapped all night, into the early morning.” If you’re going to undercut the point of your own work so badly, the jokes need to at least make sense. (The less said about another episode’s trip to a sex-toy factory, the better.) But such anything-for-a-joke vigor at least provides a respite from the show’s more studious side, as when an expert Penn asks for information replies, “To understand that, you really have to understand the history of rubber.” Check, please!
“This Giant Beast” is a fitting enough entry into the world in which shows by politically-minded hosts like John Oliver and Samantha Bee hold onto devotees by delivering monologues that often sound more like Maddow than Letterman. They run hot while Penn’s narrator character is cool; they push, untrammeled, past moments for incidental comedy while Penn can’t resist stopping to make a sex joke, however unworthy. That’s because their appeal has less, strictly, to do with their joke-writing than the work they put in to constructing arguments. But the political nature of their shows can conceal more; even as the pressing nature of this moment means their policy rhetoric jumps out more than does every punchline, the shows are meant to be, and work as, comedy. Their joke-writers and researchers are equally indispensable. (Seth Meyers’s show, the best of the current political crop, is as joke-forward as anything on TV.) Amazon’s series braids a layer of too-easy humor-adjacent content atop a show that’s not as clued-in about politics as it thinks it is. Neither strand works on its own, but the jokes seem the clear afterthought.
It’s unclear what, exactly, McKay and company wanted to achieve with a show that promises to probe the undercovered stories of capitalism in 2019 and, for instance, reduces the rubber trade to either untelegenic lectures that sources like “60 Minutes” simply know how to do better or condom and monster-truck jokes. Elsewhere, “This Giant Beast” delivers an episode built around a question of whether capitalism makes people evil, a question occasioned by a 2011 book by the oft-interviewed author Jon Ronson. This was the point at which someone might have asked if “This Giant Beast” were even doing anything new, or just churning out received wisdom with a sassy attitude — if not there, then at the episode’s conclusion, when it’s made clear that the relationship between financial success and “dickishness” is that some rich people’s awful temperaments can help us all thanks to the value of competition! Humor and insight about an issue as gnarly as capitalism in post-crash America can absolutely coexist; “Nathan for You,” which similarly put one naif at the center of a story of probing curiosity about how things work, did so for seasons.
And this show streams, at that, under the auspices of a corporation that hardly seems the ideal vessel for anything like the truth about the ways in which present-day economic systems fail so many, an image-burnished company recently driven from its planned New York offices after public revolt and one reported to pay no federal tax on its boundless income. “There are lots of people,” Penn tells us in voice-over at the end of his visit to the sex-toy factory, one whose competitive spirit represents to him, or to someone, both the spirit of capitalist innovation and something like benevolence, “who don’t seem to be dicks, but still make capitalism work for personal gain and the greater good.” Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, LeBron James, Richard Branson, George and Amal Clooney, and Oprah Winfrey scroll by; Branson, hilariously as long as you don’t think about it too hard, is holding a giant novelty check made out to “Youth AIDS” for the princely sum of $10,000.
“Being a bit of a dick,” Penn concludes, “can help you get rich and may even benefit the rest of us.” He goes on to congratulate himself for getting away with saying the word “dick” so many times in that episode, but I sensed a greater restraint at work — that the series managed to get away with not including Amazon’s own Jeff Bezos in the montage of rich people making the world better for us all. The botched sensibility of “This Giant Beast” is a missed opportunity to do something that might have been cool in the glimmering final moments before McKay’s style falls entirely out of favor. And using the series to layer a bunch of prurient jokes over a message this bland and frankly mindless, one that fails to account for what “dickishness” in business means to so many, beyond the golden reputations of Clooney and LeBron, is proof that McKay’s approach is just that — an approach, one that, having exhausted easy targets, is coming to demand more rigor, or just something to replace it. Now that’d be the marketplace at work.
“This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy.” Amazon. Feb. 22. Eight episodes (three screened for review).
Executive Producers: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Kevin Messick, Eli Holzman, Aaron Saidman, Aliyah Silverstein.