ABC’s ‘Madoff’ miniseries is not the payback you were hoping for

Richard Dreyfuss as Bernie Madoff in the ABC miniseries "Madoff." CREDIT: Giovanni Rufino, ABC

Too soon? Too late? Too something. “Madoff,” ABC’s dutiful but not terribly daring four-hour miniseries (airing in two parts Wednesday and Thursday), stars Richard Dreyfuss as the nefariously dishonest Bernard Madoff, the Manhattan private-fund manager who rose to prominence by outpacing the markets and delivering returns that other banks and funds could not.

It was too good to be true – and perhaps the miniseries is too true to be good. When Madoff’s family firm came crashing down with everything else in the 2008 downturn, his investors discovered their magic man was a Ponzi schemer. His clients lost tens of billions. It’s one of the oldest stories in the book, except for its size and scope and its lingering symbolic effects to our economy.

Of course, the story only got worse. One son (Tom Lipinski as Mark Madoff) committed suicide in 2010. The other (Danny Deferrari as Andrew Madoff) died of cancer in 2014. Madoff’s wife, Ruth (played here by Blythe Danner), now lives in Connecticut exile, making do, viewers are told, on $2.5 mil. Madoff himself has a prison term that extends well into the 22nd century, and, in “Madoff’s” half-imagined epilogue from behind bars, says he’s never felt freer and less encumbered. (Too blessed to be stressed, I guess.)

“Madoff,” based on reporting by ABC News’ Brian Ross (whose book “The Madoff Chronicles” supplies the basic narrative), treats this financial and family disaster with equal portions of respectful distance and the kind of tabloid luridness needed to hold a viewer’s attention. Dreyfuss gives a performance that is merely serviceable rather than memorable, while Danner copes with a version of Ruth Madoff that seems regrettably underwritten and underexplored. (Same goes for the sons.)

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The story is still quite a corker, though – certainly enough to fill four-ish hours of prime-time commercial television, filled with sadness and schadenfreude. “Madoff’s” best moments come near the end of the second part, when it explores the sickening discoveries by Madoff’s clients that their life’s savings had vanished.

The victims were always the most interesting angle to the story and perhaps a movie entirely from their perspective would make a more surprising drama, exploring how and why they trusted him and the ways Madoff made them feel as if they’d gained entry into a special club of worthy investors. (A Jewish club? “Madoff” doesn’t shy away from this angle, nor does it explore it too deeply; but if ever there was a shanda that played to stereotype, it could very well be the Madoff saga.)

The story as told ultimately lacks distance and context – and theme. (Unfortunately for “Madoff,” it’s airing the night after the premiere of FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” which handles those qualities masterfully.) Like its subject, “Madoff” needs many more years to sit and reflect on the nature of its evil.

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“Madoff” (two nights, four hours) begins Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. Concludes Thursday at 8 p.m.