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‘Madoff’ Review: Ponzi Schemer’s Story Is Surprisingly Humane

ABC miniseries feels at times like ”House of Cards“ for finance

Criminal pasts seem to be all the rage on television this week. Between Tuesday night’s anticipated “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” and ABC’s four-hour miniseries offering “Madoff” on Wednesday and Thursday, there’s plenty for criminally hungry viewers to latch on to – even if one offering is about murder and the other about the dark world of finances.

Indeed when you compare the two projects in subject matter alone, it’s obvious at first glance which one is sexier. But hang in there with “Madoff,” and a surprisingly humane narrative awaits.

Over the course of two nights, the project presents an intimate portrait of the man known to have stolen billions of dollars from some of the biggest financial players in the world. In what could have easily been a muddled and complex portrait of hedge funds, financiers and Wall Street mavens, the first two-hour block focuses instead on Bernie Madoff’s personal life and his penchant for winning on the stock market, to the point where he began fudging numbers in order to make his clients believe he was the best in the business.

It’s all wonderfully led by an unrecognizable Richard Dreyfuss in the leading role and Blythe Danner as his wife, Ruth. Rounding out the strong cast are the likes of Peter Scolari as Bernie’s brother Peter, Tom Lipinski as his son Mark and Michael Rispoli as Bernie’s trusted co-worker Frank DiPascali.

The project will draw inevitable comparisons to “House of Cards” thanks to the narrative, which doesn’t exactly break that fourth wall but comes close several times as Madoff explains his practices and policies surrounding his success. It’s a point of reflection that brings the audience closer to the man behind the Ponzi scheme, slowly allowing it to see his ego being built up all the way to his naming as the chairman of NASDAQ and a personal life that culminates in a sleazy affair. While it’s hard to feel sympathy for the player (much like how audiences react to Frank Underwood as he furthers his political ambitions), the construct allows a clear understanding of motive and drive that humanizes him as a character and makes the project worth watching.

By the end of the first installment, it’s clear that hubris has caught up to Madoff though, as authorities close in on him setting up the second part (airing Thursday), which focuses on the man’s very public downfall and how it affected thousands of rich families across America.

Where “Madoff” falls short is in developing the man’s complex relationships with his sons, wife and those who beg him to take their money. While the narrative certainly scratches the surface, it’s not often that it delves any deeper as the writers choose instead to grandstand Dreyfuss’ performance as the leading man. As a result other key components of the story are missed (including those who were onto him for much longer and begged authorities to pay attention), and the fallout for others doesn’t feel as heavy as it otherwise would. Those looking for a more comprehensive account of the tale may end up being better served waiting for HBO’s upcoming take “The Wizard of Lies” co-starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro. For now, this will serve as an okay primer without all of the commitment of a full-fledged series.

“Madoff” premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on ABC.