Andrew Ross Sorkin is going to make a show about how Wall Street is pretty neat and full of cool dudes

If you want an unflinching look at the corruption of the financial industry, this isn't the right guy to hire

By Alex Pareene
March 14, 2014 11:04PM (UTC)
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Andrew Ross Sorkin (AP/Chris Pizzello)

Exciting news for fans of "prestige" premium cable shows created by and dedicated to exploring milieus populated largely by powerful, morally compromised white men: Showtime is going to air a new drama about Wall Street. The pilot will be written in part by New York Times financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin (no relation to that other creator of premium cable shows about powerful white men facing various personal and ethical crises). Sorkin will retain his meaningless (but remunerative) title of "editor-at-large" of DealBook, the Times-hosted financial journalism newsletter and blog that he founded, as he seeks his riches and glory in Hollywood.

Sorkin, according to the L.A. Times, will write the pilot with veteran producers and screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman, the scribes behind films like "Rounders," "Runaway Jury" and "Ocean's Thirteen." Sorkin has not previously written for the screen, though his 2009 book "Too Big to Fail," an account of the government and Wall Street's responses to the 2008 financial crisis, was adapted into a made-for-HBO film in which Paul Giamatti delivered a disconcertingly soulful performance as Ben Bernanke.

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The show, called "Billions," will reportedly be about "the collision and, at times, collusion between an aggressive U.S. attorney in New York and some of the richest hedge fund billionaires in the country." Tough men making tough choices! Conflict! Power! It just screams prestige, right? And it's Showtime so there will definitely also be attractive women taking their clothes off.

The show, it should go without saying, will not be good. I mean, it will be a very expensive, competent production. It will perhaps be artfully photographed and the sets will look nice and they'll probably get a good past-his-prime movie actor type (or playing-against-type comic actor) for the lead. (Or maybe they'll surprise us and cast a woman in the Preet Bharara part.) It will probably have a cool title sequence.

But Andrew Ross Sorkin, for all his strengths as a reporter (and attracting highly placed sources is indeed a reportorial skill, albeit a highly overrated one) is not actually a good writer. At his best, he is serviceable. In his book, though, the dialogue (which, sure, was supposed to be what these people actually said at the time, but we all understand how much of that is finessed by the author) was stilted and clichéd. The characters will definitely swear a lot, for verisimilitude (and because, again, premium cable).

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The biggest problem is that Sorkin is just not at all the right person to helm a show ostensibly dedicated to exploring the moral and criminal issues of modern finance. It is easy to see why Showtime and various entertainment industry people don't understand that. What they know about him is that he is the Most Famous Wall Street Reporter. The problem is that Hollywood tends to imagine that a famous newspaper reporter has an adversarial relationship to the powerful and an urge to stir up trouble and uncover malfeasance. Think about basically every single heroic journalist character ever depicted in film and television: They are always chasing scoops, and those scoops will always bring someone powerful down. In real-life journalism, though, some people (many people) become successful through the cultivation of powerful people as sources, and the "scoops" those people uncover are generally things those powerful people would like known, not things they are attempting to keep secret.

Sorkin is not a rabble-rouser. He is constitutionally supportive of the financial industry and considers many of its biggest players his friends and allies. Prior to the crisis, there was absolutely no indication in his work that greed, fraud and corruption were rife in Wall Street, or that the world was perilously close to a finance-driven panic. His book on the crisis created heroes out of the regulators and banking executives who "saved" the financial industry. His journalistic work since the crisis has been, in many respects, a lengthy defense of the institutions and actors who precipitated the crisis. Wall Street is not a corrupt morass to Andrew Ross Sorkin, it is a meritocratic industry full of brilliant people to whom bad things sometimes happen. Imagine if the current heads of the five families had attended David Chase's wedding, and you begin to understand why asking Sorkin to create a drama about Wall Street is not a good idea.

Just for the sake of drama, the show probably won't be entirely friendly to bankers. Sorkin understands, intellectually at least, that many people dislike Wall Street. There will probably be speeches about how conflicted some of the people are about their wealth or power or whatever. But this is not going to be a show that will cause anyone in Wall Street to cancel their Showtime.


Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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