Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. She founded the true crime site The Blotter, and is the host of its weekly podcast, The Blotter Presents. Her new weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.
Netflix's Dirty Money returns for a second season today. If you missed the first go-round — which I binged in a single day — I highly recommend it. My husband and I still talk about the Fisher Stevens-directed finale on Donald J. Trump. It's like American Greed and Frontline had a kid, and the kid is allowed to use curse words... Hey, where are you going?
I'm joking...mostly. I realize that a comparison to the long-running PBS documentary series is a tricky one, because Frontline itself is tricky. My esteemed co-editor-at-large Tara Ariano and I once wrote a piece listing the cheery topics Frontline could find a way to make depressing. A basket of kittens: Full of razor-sharp claws!! A box of crayons: Each one bound to break! I love Frontline; it's well made and informative. Unfortunately, the "informative" part is what often makes the episodes so grim (that, and the subject matter). So why should you make room for another 12 hours of bleakly maddening revelations about corporate corruption, securities shenanigans, and Ponzi scheming in the form of Dirty Money?
Well, Dirty Money is also well made. The first season in particular showcased an all-star line-up of directors tackling various topics: Oscar-winner Alex Gibney — who's also an executive producer on the series — dove into Volkswagen's emissions scandal in the premiere episode. Erin Lee Carr — who helmed outstanding HBO docs on Gypsy Blanchard and Larry Nasser — took on Big Pharma price-gouging. And Jesse Moss — who made Con Man, about serial identity thief James Hogue — exposed predatory payday-lending practices. The second season's directorial roster isn't quite as flashy, but the folks behind the camera still have chops. The second season's third episode, "Slumlord Millionaire," takes on the Kushner family's dirty real-estate enterprises. It's co-directed by Daniel Di Mauro — who made Get Me Roger Stone — and features top-notch talking-head interviews, including Born Trump author Emily Jane Fox. That episode is as witty as it is angry. I particularly enjoyed the Sex & The City theme playing as interviewees explain why Jared Kushner was such a hapless owner of The New York Observer.
The episode is also a clear, uncondescending primer on what exactly makes the Kushners scummy, why Kushner Sr. went to jail, and how very worried we should be that the generally ineffectual and upward-failing Jared has such unfettered access to presidential power. Dirty Money is also very good at walking the viewer through the mechanics of a Ponzi scheme, or the legal motions that get a competent senior citizen put into an unwanted guardianship and then robbed blind. Season 2's final episode, "Guardians, Inc.," left me angry and nauseated with its depiction of the elder-guardian "industry," and the vultures who leverage adult-protection services to drain seniors' bank accounts. But I have aging parents, and I'd rather be paranoid about their potentially getting screwed over than clueless that it's happening until it's too late.
Another reason to dig into Dirty Money is that the subject matter, while often disheartening, isn't quite as emotionally punishing as fare like The Trials Of Gabriel Fernandez or Conversations With A Killer. A former Wells Fargo bank teller turned whistleblower talking about the hard sell that still haunts him in the second season's "The Wagon Wheel," isn't a frivolous watch; fraud has real victims, they are myriad, and the stories are downbeat. But if you, like me, consume a lot of true-crime programming, a series that's "only" about Jared Kushner using noise pollution to drive out rent-stabilized tenants may at least be a mild reprieve from true tales of child neglect and deadly psychopathy.
And while the stories in Dirty Money can often feel demoralizing, the series does offer some hope. Many episodes spotlight the whistle-blowers and crusaders who have tried to draw public attention to corporate misconduct, and worked tirelessly to reverse crappy legislation or get various industries better regulated. The series itself is a ray of light, to an extent. That well-regarded filmmakers will dig into these topics, educate themselves, and make hour-long movies that gently take our chins and turn us to face these topics is a net good.
You may not feel like you can manage the Frontline we already have, much less one that seems to confirm, as Dirty Money does, that nobody with the letters "CEO" after their name is to be trusted, and that there is literally no financial sector in which multiple bad actors will not exploit the trust of customers and patients to maximize profit. I get it. But Dirty Money is interesting, enlightening, and well-paced; I encourage you to add it to your Netflix watchlist, and if, like Frontline, it has to sit there a while before you get to it, I understand that too.
Season 2 of Dirty Money is now streaming on Netflix.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.