I love a financial thriller. It’s such a palate cleanser, given a TV diet that’s mostly psychological in nature. Our screens are full of people working from hidden and emotional motives that need to be carefully developed and represented, enacting revenge, bringing bespoke justice for crimes old and new that have struck at the heart of their families, bereaved them or otherwise makes the protagonist’s life an inescapable misery. You are asked to engage, identify and feel with them. You need a break after a while.
A financial thriller, on the other hand, is something rejuvenating, the small-screen equivalent of one of Bertie Wooster’s liveners. Why are all these people doing what they’re doing? Money! Why did this man die? He had money! Or he was preventing others from earning more money! What are they doing with all these computers? To get money! Why do they want the money? Because they want money! All he has to do is hold off on those kinds of questions — and the single answer — until the story ends and the money ends up with the right people. Or not. We do not care? It’s just money and that’s the joy of it.
So let’s move on to a fine example of the form – The Fear Index (Sky Atlantic), a four-part adaptation of the 2011 Robert Harris bestseller of the same name. I read the book and, in the true tradition of reading financial thrillers, I remember exactly what happens in each scene by the time it finishes playing out on screen. I remember there’s money involved. And a few computers.
This time around, however, there’s also Josh Hartnett! He plays the man who has the money and the computers – the hedge fund founder and money science, computer and business genius, Dr. Alexander Hoffman. He and his charismatic/showboating CEO Hugo Quarry (Arsher Ali) are set to seek a new round of funding from all the rich who are already investing in the company, as well as new ones, because you can never have enough money. rich who invest in your company, if I understand correctly. Hoffman just invented a… an… algorithm? Artificial intelligence system? An entire computer with extra smart bits stuck on? I don’t know, but it’s a MacGuffin called VIXAL-4 and what it does is analyze tons and tons of data and use it to predict events like no human ever could To do. It’s incredible.
However, Dr. H almost misses the important meeting with the wealthy investors, as he was spooked by the events of the previous night. Namely: someone (not his wife, or anyone else who knew he was interested in it) sent him a first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. Someone bypasses their state-of-the-art security system (there’s no other kind when you’re a money, computer, business, and business genius). A disheveled intruder enters the house and knocks Big H unconscious. According to the bookseller, Hoffman ordered the book himself; the disheveled intruder looks exactly like one of the terrified faces printed in the 1872 book. Is someone messing with Dr. H’s mind or is his own mind becoming a mess?
But wait – what does the money do? Well, you’ll be happy to know that it’s increasing! The VIXAL-4 MacGuffin has been up and running for a week, and investors are thrilled to hear that it has made them – and excuse the technical jargon here – absolutely a lot of money. To behind-the-scenes protests from risk manager Marieme (Aïssa Maïga) about the infernal levels of risk exposure associated with the use of AI, the career bullish and absent-minded Hoffman pay little heed. But I’m sure everything will be fine.
I’m joking of course. Layer upon layer of mystery, tension, and complication builds up quickly and satisfyingly, as anyone who infiltrates Hoffman’s life and security code begins to reveal more and more of his middle hand. Unless, of course, it’s all Hoffman’s paranoid delirium. VIXAL-4’s power to foresee and accordingly profit from disasters that no human could have foreseen becomes increasingly unsettling. The fear of losing our minds, the fear of the unknown, the fear of robots taking over our lives, the fear of failure and danger and humanity’s terribly predictable responses to all of this intertwine well, somewhere around the viewers throat.
It’s solid, satisfying stuff. And it’s remarkably enhanced by Hartnett, who invests Hoffman with palpable, believable, and increasingly caustic fear from the get-go. It looks real. It looks like he’s in real pain, and he’s a noticeable number of steps from the occasional moments of hyperventilating and glaring eyes at critical plot points, which is all the main man is usually allowed in these things. Don’t worry, you’ll enjoy it.