Here’s a worried question I want to plant in your head: when is TV drama going to start depicting the world we actually live in, where almost everyone wears masks, even outdoors? The current state of affairs — watching people on screen in familiar locations interacting closely, as we used to, and not wearing face-coverings — is a bit jarring. But it’s greatly preferable to the alternative: mumbled lines even more unintelligible than they are usually, smiles and teeth and noses and lips hidden behind a rag — and concealed with them not just beauty or character but half the means our faces use to convey emotion.
I wonder, though, how long this nostalgic dream state is going to last. The thought struck me quite often while watching a ropy Sky Atlantic series called Devils. Probably my brain was looking for distractions from the appalling dialogue and implausible plot — of which more in a moment — but I couldn’t stop it. ‘What is this quaint, communal shared workspace in which they’re congregating?’, my brain wondered, in the opening scene where our City boy hero Massimo is applauded by his co-workers in his ritzy, atrium-style office for having just made a cool £200 million ‘shorting Greece’. And: ‘Wow! They seem to have found a bar in Shoreditch that is not only open but actually serving alcohol — and they haven’t been busted by the police!’
Devils is based on an Italian novel and made by an Italian writing and production team, which may explain why it doesn’t quite translate. Let me give you an example: Massimo (Alessandro Borghi — aka Aureliano in Suburra) is a hot-shot, up-and-coming trader, who is yet denied promotion because the company’s English, public school-educated number two Edward (Ben Miles) is racist towards Italians and wants to maintain the old snooty City traditions.
Eh? Has any of the large script team been into a City bank since Big Bang? Even in the early 1980s, those attitudes were well on the way out. In today’s culture, Massimo’s overriding bar to promotion wouldn’t be that he was Italian but that he was insufficiently BAME, disabled and transgender. If the script can’t get such basic details right, why should the viewer buy in to the bigger storyline?
Even worse is the scene where one of the financiers explains to the owner of a tech company what short-selling means. The entrepreneur waits patiently for the explanation to be completed, then says with belated impatience: ‘I know what short-selling is.’ Well, yes, of course. But wouldn’t he have interrupted a lot earlier? This device is one of the laziest, most hackneyed ways of conveying information through dialogue. It just leaves any viewer with half a brain feeling irritated and insulted.
I expect, if you’re able to overlook all this nonsense, Devils may pan out to be the kind of labyrinthine conspiracy thriller I rather enjoy. Quite often — see, for example, ZeroZeroZero and, best of all, Succession — Sky Atlantic is a reliable badge of quality. But not, I fear, on this occasion.