Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

When I last checked in on Bull, TNT’s new hourlong drama set on Wall Street, the battle was joined between Robert Roberts, evil genius behind top-drawer financial firm Merriweather Marx, and the startup formed by hot-shot Merriweather defectors, led by his grandson.

Spurned grandfather, the Kaiser, has raised a billion dollars to buy Wesley Industries in a plot to deprive the struggling Young Turks of a much-needed fee. Ditto, as his grandson is known, strikes back by floating some bonds to launch a competing bid. What business is Wesley in? The audience doesn’t know, and the characters don’t care. Strategy, schmategy—this time it’s personal!

Would you invest your money with these people? Will Americans watch a TV show set on Wall Street, featuring the three-piece front line of the American dream? Conventional wisdom holds that viewers raised on hospital dramas and cop shows could care less about suits.

But that was before the great decadelong bull run. Now both TNT and Fox, where The Street will debut Nov. 1, are betting that a Wall Street drama is an idea whose time has come. Indeed, it may have already passed—now that the bloom is off the IPO. Investors who take their market cues from Super Bowl results and presidential elections could be forgiven for seeing prime time Wall Street as a symptom of our aging bull market.

An original cable series, Bull is getting full-bore promotion. Its cross-promotion partner is not TNT but cable sister CNNfn, sponsor of the mid-hour Bull Report, a recap of the day’s market. An also-ran to CNBC, CNNfn probably can use all the promotion it gets, but this connection doesn’t do much.

But I’m not sure that mixing this particular fiction with reality does much for the financial channel’s credibility. If life on Wall Street is anything like Bull, my advice is to sell.

Of course, watching Bull for insights into Wall Street is like watching Dallas to learn about the oil business. Instead, we get the requisite square-jawed studs with Harvard MBAs, leggy babes in business suits and Manolo Blahniks, and after-hours sex on Porthault sheets.

“It’s a tits-and-ass world,” says Bull’s dishy blonde banker—a line that could only be uttered by a woman or a villain these days.

On Bull, there is no shortage of villains uttering other discomfiting truths about bottom lines and the categorical imperative of cash.

About once an episode, some character delivers a tell-it-like-it-is Gordon Gekko-type speech designed to play on Americans’ peculiar ambivalence about making money. We love money, but we hate business—at least we love to hate it in our entertainment.

“Only a child would think that the world doesn’t work with a wink and a nod and a handshake between old pals smoking Cordobas and sipping Grand Marnier behind closed doors,” the Kaiser chides his principled grandson. Agrees one of Ditto’s partners, unscrupulous Hunter Lasky, an ethnic J.R., “A hungry man cannot eat morals for dinner.”

As befits the new capitalist hero, Ditto wants his morals and to eat dinner, too—at an expensive restaurant. Alas, the evidence is against him, since so far on the show the only people who have made big money have done something illegal (insider trading) or unsavory (greenmail). But Ditto, rebel with a platinum card, has embarked on business as a spiritual journey, spouting clichés right out of a Fast Company seminar.

“What happened to pushing the envelope, huh?” Ditto asks his skittish partners. “Climbing to the top of the ziggurat? Becoming the hero of your own life? … [The status quo] is OK for the suits who want to stay for the rest of their lives, nice and safe in their little cubicles, papered with guarantees and weekly paychecks. But I thought we were better than that.”

They’re so good, in fact, that the only thing standing between the Young Turks and the big score is not the vagaries of risk or the market but the vengeful Kaiser, whose war against the upstarts magically turns overcompensated fat cats into underdogs the audience can root for.

I have four words of advice for the makers of Bull: Show me the money. No one cares about debentures or derivatives. Our fascination with Wall Street isn’t about investment banking or even the thrill of winning. It’s about those zillion-dollar bonuses and stock windfalls.

But where are the multimillion- dollar lofts? The parties in the Hamptons? The trips to Milan for custom-tailored suits? Enough with the orange-juice futures. Cut to the lifestyle.