Scam and Cheese

Houston, we have a problem: Mike Farrell plays Kenneth Lay, the CEO who transformed Enron from a Texas energy company into a vast enterprise with no reall underpinnings.Photo: Courtesy of CBS

Let me restate my earnings. Which means I lied to you the first time. There is no Santa Claus. The big guy you thought was Santa (Ken Lay or Jeff Skilling or Andrew Fastow) turned out instead to be a second-story man. So your stock tanked and your pension plan took a powder. Consider yourself deregulated, like California’s energy market. And it’s not as if they didn’t leave some coal in your stocking: “special purpose entities”; “zero-cost collars”; “equity swaps.”

A little late in The Crooked E, the giddy TV movie based on Brian Cruver’s insider memoir of loose morals, bad faith, and creative accounting in Houston in the go-go nineties, a composite pooh-bah called Mr. Blue (Brian Dennehy) calls Enron’s kind of crackhead greed “the globalization of stupidity.” If he had only mentioned this stupidity even half an hour earlier to his biz-school protégé Cruver (Christian Kane), Cruver might’ve dumped his stock, too, like all the top execs at the gas-electricity-pulp-paper-water-bandwidth-and-financial-derivatives-trading company, instead of buying more and getting hosed. But like the rest of the adrenaline-addicted coolies in Enron’s “virtual assets” boiler room working the phones to sell bankruptcy insurance (I kid you not!), he believed what Ken Lay told him on closed-circuit television.

Well, maybe you’d believe Ken Lay, too, if he were played by Mike Farrell, who brings to The Crooked E his credibility as a surgeon on M*A*S*H and as a veterinarian on Providence. It must have been Jeff Skilling (Jon Ted Wynne) who dreamed up that “mark to market” accounting trick that booked the full value of any long-term deal as immediate revenue. (If a power company promises to pay you $10 million each year for fifteen years for natural gas, you put it down as $150 million right away.) And it must have been Andrew Fastow (Robert Hucalak) who prestidigitated those off-the-balance-sheet “partnerships.” (Not only did Enron execs pay themselves a commission for brokering such private partnerships, but the partnerships got to borrow more money from the banks without its showing up on Enron’s books as debt. Isn’t this special?) In real life, after we all found out that Enron couldn’t pay its bills because it wasn’t making any money, the real Ken Lay had to sell two of his three homes in Aspen.

But before any of that happened, boy, did they party: “Like a giant fraternity with an unlimited budget,” says Cruver’s fiancée, Courtney (Shannon Elizabeth). This antic ante may have been upped by a personnel-department policy of hiring ex-strippers as secretaries. In last fall’s Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enron, Robert Bryce told us more than we needed to know about hanky-panky in the higher pipelines. This was a distraction. I don’t know anything at all about the private lives of the folks who ran Tyco, WorldCom, and Global Crossing. But they’ve contributed as much as Enron to a shape-shifting of Wall Street bestiality from bull and bear to Golden Fleece. And some of us think that so long as all shareholders care about are dividends – not goods, not services, not investment in any future more than three months distant – they deserve fleecing. If an economy is not for the workers who create the goods and perform the services, it’s for parasitic grubs.

But I digress. The Crooked E is fun – perhaps not quite as much as Barbarians at the Gate, but HBO hired Larry Gelbart, James Garner, and Jonathan Pryce to satirize RJR Nabisco, American Express, Shearson Lehman, and First Boston, in a sort of Food Fight of the Vanities. Crooked E may remind you more of Profit, the Fox series that lasted merely a month of Mondays, in which Adrian Pasdar played a gray-flannel Julien Sorel type, climbing the corporate ladder through forgery, blackmail, and murder, going so far as to pretend at one point to be a vegetarian and at another a recovering alcoholic. As Barbara Ehrenreich so memorably put it about all these people before she went to work as a member of the minimum-wage underclass: “They did not sow, neither did they reap, but rather sat around pushing money through their modems.”

Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001 (January 1; 7:30 to 8 p.m.; HBO) listens to young people, ages 2 to 11, talk about what they saw and felt, from inner-city schools to military bases, between songs by John Lennon (“Imagine”), Frank Sinatra (“That’s America to Me”), Woody Guthrie ("This Land Is Your Land”), and the Byrds ("Turn! Turn! Turn!”).

Stage on Screen: Waiting for Godot (January 2; 9:30 to 11:30 p.m.; Channel 13) finishes up what public television started last September with filmed versions of shorter Beckett pieces, with a wonderfully wry production of Godot, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and starring Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy. After which, alas, there is “nothing to be done.”

Much Ado About Something (January 2; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13) isn’t, really, unless you think Frontline should be wasting its time wondering all over again whether Shakespeare wrote his own plays, rather than Sir Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford or – the favorite here, never mind why – Christopher Marlowe. Talk about your signifying nothing.

Oz (January 5; 9 to 10 p.m.; hbo) is the first of eight new episodes in the last season of Tom Fontana’s maximum-security-prison series, featuring Patti LuPone and Malachy McCourt in guest-starring roles and a return from the dead of Harold Perrineau as Augustus Hill. There will be evil eyes, meditation mazes, telemarketing, William Blake, and a death-row magazine fashion spread, not to mention a mayor who gets sent to the slammer for having been soft on the Klan in 1963.

Cirque du Soleil: Fire Within (January 6; 9 to 9:30 p.m.; Bravo) is the first of thirteen episodes in which filmmakers follow the Canadian circus performers as they develop and present their new production. As always, the bodies in motion are wonderful, and so is the music, but the articulation of the mystical meaning of it all will make you want to stuff an owl.

The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron
Sunday, January 5; 9 to 11pm; CBS.

Scam and Cheese