Riviera review: Cheap thrills in a glamorous world

It’s a quality show that could also pass as a satire on the budgets of prestige television

Even the extravagant playgrounds of the world's mega rich are not so well guarded that – with enough wicked intent – someone cannot sneak in and leave behind a sly joke. So there it is, a 17th-century oil painting, Juno Confiding Io to the Care of Argus by Claude Lorrain, proudly displayed aboard the yacht of a Russian oligarch, shortly before the entire ship blows up, taking the passengers and the picture with it.

But there it is again, somehow, hanging in the French villa of one of the passengers, Constantin Clios (Anthony LaPaglia) another billionaire. How the painting has been duplicated is something that this extravagant thriller may well reveal. But how it has escaped the National Gallery of Ireland, where, in real life, it is on permanent exhibition, probably comes down to the conspiracy of three Irish men.

Riviera (Sky Atlantic, Thursday, 9pm), created by Neil Jordan, based on an idea by producer Paul McGuinness, and whose first episode is co-written by Jordan and novelist John Banville, is a thriller based on the art market. This is "the last unregulated great bazaar," we are assured, but as its earliest minutes flitter between exclusive sanctums in the Côte d'Azur, London, Monaco and New York – where Jordan and Banville lay their scene – this could pass as easily for a satire on the impressively unchecked budgets of prestige television.

In London, the scion of an investment firm, Clios Bank, gives a coked-up, Gordon Gekko-style pitch, claiming: "Money desires nothing so much as to be itself." It is "most itself" when accumulating in a Picasso, apparently. Riviera, on the other hand, is most itself when a glamorous blonde emerges from a private jet, nestles into a limousine and is informed starkly of the death of her husband. This is Julia Stiles, as an art curator (read: personal shopper) and younger second wife of a Russian oligarch, now thrust into the centre of a drama of uncommon plushness.


It asks too much from Stiles, though, a fascinatingly flat actor, who must negotiate her way through family frictions (involving the entrancing Lena Olin as a ravenly first wife), art forgeries, police investigations and darting assassins, while sleuthing out her husband's secret life and rotating through a wardrobe of unflattering outfits.

The Lorrain painting, Banville and Jordan suggest, is a better fit: a depiction of lusty betrayal and wily revenge among the gods – the most leisured classes – which this family, "The House of Clios", seems destined to play out. Life doesn't imitate art, though, as Woody Allen said; it imitates bad television. Thankfully, Riviera, with its world of wealth and image, is quite good television, and very far removed from life as we know it.