Rich people, eh? Don’t they have it tough? All that money and those lavish houses? And their boats that sometimes blow up, taking an oligarch or two with them? Yeah, being a billionaire is a hard job. Even when they die, people are still queuing up to get their hands on their money.
Deciding to make a TV show just about them, then, is a easy sell, right? Who doesn’t like to feel sorry for wealthy people who have spent years doing dodgy deals and committing fraud to make their fortune? That’s presumably the conversation that went on when Paul Former U2 Manager McGuinness decided he had an idea for series and Neil Jordan agreed to write it. The result is Sky’s new original drama, Riviera, a programme that takes place – you guessed it – on the French Riviera.
A hotbed of fancy dresses, fancier yachts and uber-fancy paintings, Paul Former U2 Manager McGuinness’ theory was perhaps that people would simply find the backdrop beautiful enough to look at and would therefore lap the 10-episode thriller up as a piece of lifestyle porn. But it’s not as simple as that, as the show forgets to add such things as in interesting people, a gripping story or even realistic dialogue. (Who cares whether the cast sound like actual people, as long as they’re obscenely well-off?)
SS-GB director Philipp Kadelbach and Penny Dreadful helmer Damon Thomas shoot things with a graceful style and lavish colour, so that, as the old adage goes, the Riviera really is like a character in the story. The problem is that it’s more interesting than any of the actual characters.
Julia Stiles plays Georgina, the widow of fabulously wealthy art dealer Constantine (Anthony LaPaglia). While she’s off at an auction bidding $30 million on a Malevich for him, though, he’s on a boat eyeing up a scantily clad woman, only for her to dive off the yacht and the whole thing to blow up. Georgina is therefore left without a husband, but with an inherited family of grieving big spenders, not to mention an Interpol investigation into her husband’s assets. With his ex-wife, Irina (Lena Olin), scheming to get back the stunning villa she once owned, Georgina begins to explore her deceased spouse’s assets for herself, unearthing a sea of lies that ranges from a secret love nest (complete with a hidden room) to an incriminating memory stick and an art forgery racket that’s been running for years.
The whole show is predicated on the idea that Georgina was clueless about her hubby’s nefarious activities, but the idea that she could be so naive is laughably implausible. It’s credit to Stiles that she manages to keep up that stance all the way to the end of the season, but it’s hard to buy into her common sense. After a string of supporting roles in films such as the Bourne franchise, it’s a treat to see her back playing the lead. It’s just a shame that she’s been wasted in such an underwhelming role, only really getting to develop as a character in the predictable finale, which sees her deliver a hint of satisfying justice.
Even with our protagonist largely one-note, the show’s fatal weakness lies in its supporting ensemble, whom are neither interesting enough to intrigue nor likeable enough to engage with. Dimitri Leonidas dials the sleaze up to 11 as Christos, Constantine’s son, who spends his time having sex, waxing lyrical about how great it is to be rich, and getting addicted to heroin. “Money desires nothing but to be itself,” he states grandly, early on, but Billions this ain’t, and there’s nothing deeper to the series’ fascination with wealth than how cool it is. By the time he’s in rehab, the possibility of us caring is way off the table.
Constantine’s other descendants are just as two-dimensional, from Roxane Duran’s daughter, who self-harms (something that’s troublingly not really discussed), to Adam (Iwan Rheon), who seems to have a thing for Georgina. Rheon, best known as Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones, is in his element here, all steely smiles and intimidating stares, and he certainly knows how to wear a tux, but between Phil Davis as a cardboard cut-out investigator and cliched gangster Negrescu, there’s not enough screen-time for Adam and Georgina to really sell the idea of a possible connection.
Plot strands come and go, throwing in wild goose chases and red herrings galore, but whether we’re chasing down elusive art dealer Jon Brandeis or working out the identity of Elena, it all feels like padding to stretch out what could be a compelling feature film (think The Two Faces of January) into a 10-hour grand epic for international audiences. Amid it all, Adrian Lester wanders in and out of subplots as art forger Robert Carver, a role that’s essentially Mickey from BBC Hustle, but with a bigger budget. It’s always a treat to watch the excellent, underrated Lester at work, and there’s some spark in his exchanges with Stiles, as they collaborate and run rings around those surrounding them, but it’s not enough to redeem a clunky, lazy series propped up by stereotypes and little more. With nobody to sympathise with, and no attempt to condemn or satirise what’s on-screen, the result is a dull affair that squanders a top-notch cast, the usually-cool world of art heist thrillers and the jaw-dropping titular landscape. The script’s pacing manages to keep drip-feeding cliffhangers just at the end of each episode, but it’s a trick that can’t counter the growing suspicion that this is all surface and no substance. You spend half the season wondering whether Constantine will turn out to be alive all along, but then you realise the real twist: you don’t actually care.
Riviera Season 1 is available in full on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, for £7.99 a month – no contract.