“Follow the Money” – A very crooked trail [MOVIE REVIEW]

Thomas Hwan as Alf and Thomas Bo Larsen as Mads in "Follow the Money." Photo courtesy of Topic.

Thomas Hwan as Alf and Thomas Bo Larsen as Mads in “Follow the Money.” Photo courtesy of Topic.

“Follow the Money” may very well be the best television series you’ve never heard of. Playing on the Topic streaming channel, this three season Danish series is ambitious, thrilling, and unexpected. The closest comparison might be with the extraordinary HBO classic, “The Wire” from both the storytelling and acting standpoints. There are not enough superlatives to describe “Follow the Money” so I won’t try. (Yes I will but I still won’t’ be able to impart how mesmerizing it is.)

American series television has yet to crack the fraud crimes arena. Yes, we’ve had two and three part mini-series about the Madoff scandal (of which only one was wholly satisfying) and excellent documentaries about the implosion of companies that were built on a house of cards (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley”), but we have yet to see “Law and Order: Fraud” and never will. And most of that is because fraud doesn’t happen overnight and can’t be solved quickly. It’s not glamorous; it can be painstaking. Even a show based on the trail left through money laundering the proceeds of high ticket drug operations is usually about making a drug bust not about sending someone to jail for not paying taxes. The Feds never got Al Capone for murder; he was sent away for tax evasion.

Season Three has just premiered. It works as a stand-alone but to fully appreciated how extraordinary that is, one should watch the first two seasons, both of which mesh together like wires on a screen.

Season One begins when Mads, a detective in the criminal investigation unit discovers a body that has washed ashore. The victim, a Ukrainian worker, had been hired by a leading wind energy firm, Energreen. Although this is not the first “industrial accident” for the firm, they have consistently escaped prosecution as there are never any witnesses. Following such incidents, the workers are herded into vans and shipped back to their respective Eastern European countries, to be followed by a new group of untraceable immigrants. Mads is further infuriated when he is told to back off because the Fraud unit is investigating Energreen and they don’t want anyone muddying the waters. Not to be stopped, Mads finds a way to get assigned to the Fraud division.

Upset when he discovers that most fraud investigations, Energreen included, take anywhere from 2 to 7 years to complete, he decides to apply some of his criminal investigation tools to the case to dig deeper. There is something rotten at the company and he will use any means, including illegal wire taps, to bring light to the cockroaches under those rocks.

He’s not wrong, but his techniques increasingly bring trouble to the division, especially his co-worker Alf who always plays by the book.

Energreen is led by the very charismatic Sander who, under the tutelage of a politically important mentor, has created shell company after shell company to prop up the value of the company in preparation for their IPO. Helping him is Claudia, the very young, extremely ambitious lawyer who has her eye on the top legal position at the company. Discovering that her boss has been cooperating with the fraud unit, she reports back to Sander. The former legal head is dispatched, but not before he is given a hefty severance package and an airtight non-disclosure agreement (NDA) which stops the Fraud division in its tracks. Claudia replaces him and soon is over her head without knowing it.

If that’s the A story, the B story involves a completely disparate set of characters. Nicky, recently released from a stint in prison for car theft, is now living with his girlfriend and their baby. He works in her father’s garage repairing cars. His best friend Bimse works there with him. They make a “Dumb and Dumber” pair if there ever was one. Bimse likes short cuts and gets them into all sorts of trouble. Nicky, seemingly the brains of the operation, but it’s a number you have to multiply by 0, can’t resist the fast money that Bimse leads him to – like Serbian gangsters who need a BMW or even his father-in-law who has a deal going with a biker gang. It doesn’t much matter because there’s always a beating waiting for them or another deal that goes sour. The way the writer/creator Jeppe Gjervig Gram eventually melds the B Story into the A is nothing short of brilliant. No more information will be forthcoming because the dive into this first season of 10 episodes is deep and satisfying.

Esben Smed as Nicky in “Follow the Money.” Photo courtesy of Topic.

Season Two, involving most of the same characters as the previous season, is about bank fraud. In short, a whale is trying to take over a guppy and the guppy is fighting back. On full display are greed, sibling rivalry, arrogance, ignorance, political corruption, and a scheme that is enormous and virtually unstoppable. Dumb and Dumber again have a separate storyline that will eventually merge in an unexpected and startling way. Nicky shows occasional flashes of intelligence (brilliance would be too strong a word) but is still led astray by dangerous loyalties as well as greed and ambition. His fearlessness has attracted the attention of an enforcer who mentors him. To say he is unprepared is an understatement. Season One was probably always intended to lead into Season Two, or at least the string of various elements lent themselves successfully in that direction. Certainly Season One could have been seen in isolation but Season Two needs the elements that began in Season One to complete the picture. The ending of Season Two is wholly satisfying and it is clear that this was the end of the series, both of which were produced in 2016. But…

The brilliance of Season Three (2019) is the repurposing of the only two characters left from the past. Alf, formerly of the fraud squad, is now on loan to the criminal drugs division because his chief understands that in drugs, you need to follow the money to get to the top. Many of his co-workers fail to grasp Alf’s skills and fight against his approach. They would prefer just to continue making busts. But there is a new king in town and he supplies to all, something that both lessens and heightens the existent rivalries. And who is the liaison to the kingpin? None other than our friend Nicky, smarter, smoother, and more thoughtful; less prone to the mistakes of the past. Nicky and Alf will be on a collision course throughout the ten episodes, although it will take some time before they are fully aware of it. Again, there is a B story, one that quickly melds into the Alf and Nicky collision course. Mousy bank employee Anna is passed over for promotion in favor of the dishier, younger woman she trained. Life at home is no better with her nasty teenage son and controlling disrespectful husband Soren. Soren, a contractor, is on the verge of going bankrupt because his main supplier cannot deliver. The supplier’s funds have been frozen by the bank and he’s unable to pay for the product that Soren needs. Soren asks Anna to go into the computer and unfreeze the funds. If she’s caught doing this highly illegal transfer, her career is over. But Anna soon discovers how lucrative unfreezing accounts can be and soon she is able to use her expertise to set up a sophisticated money laundering business during her day job. Like the other seasons, Gram is painstaking in setting up the story and you’ll just have to take my word that it’s worth it because by the time you get to episode 4 or 5, you’ll want to binge to the end.

There’s a lot of compelling television out there, but rarely is there anything that is this spellbinding. The acting is terrific. Thomas Bo Larsen (Mads) is the most recognizable of the actors having been seen recently in the Oscar-winning foreign film “Another Round.” His flat face and beady eyes (there’s no nice way to say it) are boiling over in anger and frustration and he leads you on a merry chase between sympathy and antipathy. Thomas Hwan, Alf, brings a quiet dignity to his character in the first two seasons and then a believable agony in the third.

Esben Smed, Nicky, literally transforms himself in front of us from a handsome, desperate moron to a believable kingpin. It is amazing he has yet to make a mark in an English language series as his looks and ability cry out for international stardom. The voluptuous Natalie Madueño is perfect as Claudia who brings the right mix of greed and terror to her role as the ambitious lawyer in the first two seasons. Nikolaj Lie Kaas plays Sander, and a more convincing, charming and deadly CEO of a Ponzi scheme you will never find. And then there is Maria Rich, the frumpy turned sexy bank employee who morphs before our eyes in Season Three and is the lynch pin upon which all the action eventually hinges. These are just a few of the key players but everyone in this series is outstanding.

My overriding admiration for this series lies with the writer/creator Jeppe Gjervig Gram. In television, writers are asked to come up with a “Bible” for the series that outlines what each episode will bring. It is, in essence, a formal outline of the whole series that the writers use as a basis for the episodes assigned to them. I can envision Gram’s “Bible” as a precision machine that lays out a maze with trails as intricate as those of Hampton Court. One wrong turn and you face a wall and the possibility of never getting out. Gram has created a deceptive mobius strip that seemingly takes the audience on a roller coaster ride that actually leads somewhere; that light at the end of the tunnel that can’t be seen until you’re inches from it. That he was able to pull the threads together in a meaningful way for Season Three to even exist is dazzling. Writing this taut and original is a gift that few achieve. Gram deserves the kind of writer overall deal given to so many less talented American writers. He may have created a very Danish show, but at the root of all of these episodes is a universality that could translate anywhere. Clearly, I’m an unabashed fan.

Streaming now on Topic. It’s worth the subscription.  

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