Bernie Madoff has become a reoccurring character in several television programs in the first quarter of 2010. He's not actually depicted on screen. There hasn't yet been an episode on a network or a HBO series where an actor like Richard Dreyfuss or Tom Wilkinson has been hired to portray the infamous Madoff. As of now, Madoff has only been referenced by name. Most likely a coincidence though it doesn't come as any surprise!
It's becoming a bit of an annoying cliché when a movie proclaims to be "based on a true story." Similarly, TV shows that brag about having stories "ripped from the headlines" are equally irritating. With hours and hours of TV to fill, various news stories will occasionally overlap various programs, but it's rare that so many fictionalized shows will glom onto the same news story. I suppose because the Bernie Madoff story is so big that it simply cannot be denied.
In December 2008, former stockbroker and investment advisor Bernie Madoff was arrested on charges of fraud and money laundering. In March 2009, he pled guilty to eleven felonies. He was labeled as pulling off the largest Ponzi scheme in history.
If you're not sure what a Ponzi scheme is, Charles Dickens first wrote about it in his novel Little Dorrit. The most recent adaptation of which aired on PBS and won seven Emmys almost seven months after Madoff pled guilty. A Ponzi scheme is when someone takes your money, tells you that you're investing in a great, sure-fire profit-maker, when all the while you're not really investing in anything. The Ponzi is just re-distributing the wealth.
The man who became famous doing it was an Italian named Charles Ponzi back in the early 20th century. From a logical standpoint, a Ponzi scheme cannot be maintained forever. Charles Ponzi didn't realize this when he first attempted it shortly after World War I, but Ponzi schemes have been attempted numerous times since then and it's been determined every time that it's a scheme destined to fail. It doesn't work. Why anyone in the 100 years since its discovery would still try it is beyond stupid.
Whether Madoff knew that his scheme was destined to fail is irrevelant. He simply wanted to live in the lap of luxury and not care that he was taking billions upon billions of dollars away from people. What's surprising is that Madoff was able to get away with his scheme for as long as he did.
On Monday, March 1 of this year, Harry Markopolos appeared on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. A week later, he was the guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He was on both programs to talk about his new book, which was published in that same period. Markopolos' book is called "No One Would Listen." The book details how, in 1999, Markopolos decried Madoff to the SEC, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the government agency that monitors trading and investments. Markopolos told them that Madoff was lying about his investments, but the SEC ignored it.
So, for nearly 10 years, Madoff made off with billions of dollars, including money from universities and charities. And, for 10 years, despite Markopolos' pleadings, Madoff stole in many people's livelihoods and even life savings, while the government did nothing. One can imagine that that would make those people very angry, and in the various TV shows to address the Madoff issue, anger has been a common theme.
As a matter of fact, in almost every TV show to address it, there's always been a Bernie Madoff-like character and that character always ends up dead, murdered by an angry person who had his or her money taken. The one exception is ABC's Brothers & Sisters.
In that show, which got the jump on the others, is about the Walker family, a family that's rocked when the patriarch's death reveals some hidden secrets. One devastating secret is that the patriarch was having an affair with an aspiring actress named Holly Harper. The patriarch left Holly money as well as shares in his company known as Ojai. This season, things went south for Holly when she learned that the money she had invested from Ojai had been lost in a Ponzi scheme. As is the usual case, this Ponzi scheme was merely used as a vehicle for revealing more unearthed secrets within the Walker family.
But, since the FX series Damages began its third season in January, it has made the Ponzi scheme its central focus. It's in fact the only TV program to tackle the Bernie Madoff-like story week to week. The Emmy-winning show stars Glenn Close as a strong and severe lawyer named Patty Hewes. This year, the government tasks Hewes with finding money that Louis Tobin has stolen in his Madoff iteration. One aspect of the Madoff story is the involvement of Madoff's sons. How were they involved and to what extent? Damages is trying to answer those questions vis-a-vis Tobin's son, Joe, played by Campbell Scott. Because this program is dedicating all of its episodes to this one story, they're able to go more in-depth on various aspects of the case, and I like that.
Most of the other shows dealing with this issue in March 2010 have had only one episode dedicated to faux Bernie Madoff plots. CBS' The Good Wife did an episode entitled "Bang," which called its faux Madoff character... Mr. Wagner. In the episode, a man named Brad Broussard is thought to have killed Wagner. There's a scene in this episode where the lawyers get bombarded with letters in support of Broussard because they think he's guilty. The people actually wanted Wagner dead.
A lot of people who lost their livelihoods to Madoff were probably fit to kill him as well. Most, however, are content with Madoff's sentence of 150 years in prison. Yet, some could argue that watching these shows could fulfill an inner revenge fantasy on the part of some Americans. Of course, many would argue that it's not revenge and that it's justice.
No better was that idea of revenge played out than it was on the episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit entitled "Confidential." In typical SVU fashion, there were a lot of twists and turns, a lot of red herrings and misdirection, but in the end, a man named Richard is compared to Madoff and is linked to a murder that happened 20 years ago. While being escorted out of SVU headquarters, an old man who had his money stolen shoots Richard dead in an elevator.
In that show, actress Lena Olin who plays Richard's attorney, Ingrid, secretly wishes Richard to die, but can't do anything about it. The old man with the gun fulfills her hidden murder desire. Her methods may give some people pause, but it definitely has some vicarious pleasure that people affected by men like Madoff might enjoy.