The TV landscape is currently preoccupied with something it probably always should have been preoccupied with: money. Prestige cable shows like Billions and Succession have entered the cultural conversation by telling stories about money and the people who make a lot of it.
Shows like Lodge 49 and even the Roseanne reboot (which has now transformed into The Conners) examine the economy from a working class perspective. Why is television suddenly interested in the contents of its characters wallets? David Caspe, co-creator of Showtime’s Black Monday, has a theory.
“I think we’re still seeing reverberations from the ’08 crash,” he says. “If you think about how devastating that was, the repercussions so far-flung and I think that it probably takes a little time for an event like that to embed and then come out in writers’ work. A lot of people probably came of age during that time.”
Black Monday, which was co-created by Caspe and his Champaign, ILL partner Jordan Cahan, in many ways represents the logical next step in TV’s fascination with the stock market and public trading by taking it back to the beginning. The show takes place in the most infamously volatile and decadent era for the U.S. stock market: the 1980s.
Black Monday premiered for Showtime on January 20 and begins in 1987, exactly one year before the “Black Monday” on October 19, 1987 when stock markets around the world crashed. The show follows employees of the 11th most powerful Wall Street trading firm, The Jammer Group, and how they will eventually crash the world’s economy. Don Cheadle, Andrew Rannells, Regina Hall, and Paul Scheer star.
One thing that Black Monday shares in common with recent stock market properties like Adam McKay’s film The Big Short, and HBO series Succession, is it’s comedic in nature. The show is technically a half hour comedy, as the TV rulers-that-be insist that all half hour shows be deemed comedies, though in this instance the designation mostly fits. The show’s pilot episode feels like an extended cocaine binge and somehow finds time for Kurt Braunohler as a monstrous day trader, Casey Wilson repeatedly slapping her boyfriend, and Ken Marino playing the dual roles of the Lehman Brothers (who probably have sex with each other).
Somehow all the off-the-wall nonsense feels like it’s treating the world economy with the level of respect and attention to detail it deserves: next to none.
“I think people with dumb ideas and dumb views on things is pretty funny usually and man, there were just a lot of dumb points of view in the eighties,” Caspe says. “Our characters are largely fighting against a lot of those people although many of our characters are complete idiots too when it comes to their views.”
Still, despite the genuinely funny comedic trappings, the series has a strong sense of dramatic storytelling as well. The pilot episode opens on Black Monday itself with an unidentified day trader jumping from the top of a building to his death (and onto Don Cheadle’s character, Mo Monroe’s Lamborghini limousine).
“The job is so extreme that it attracts extreme personalities,” Cahan says. “In a normal job, what’s the worst thing that can happen in your day? You get fired. But the worst thing that can happen to these guys is they lose everything: their kids’ college funds, their homes, everything in a day. With a world that extreme and excessive and the stakes are already so high.”
The pilot episode also ends with Mo hatching a legitimately brilliant scheme to entrap rookie trader Blair Pfaff (Andrew Rannells) and therefore become the beneficiary of the grand Georgina Jeans public stock empire. As the well-meaning but oft-disrespected Blair, Rannells is back in a type of role he’s familiar with.
“(Blair) reminds me a lot of Elder Price, the character I played in Book of Mormon,” Rannells says. He has this ambition and this knowledge with no practical experience and there’s something very naïve but hungry about him that I was really excited about. Blair knows what he wants, and he doesn’t exactly know how he’s going to get it, but he’s going to figure out how to do it.”
Black Monday was perhaps inevitable with the success of Succession and Billions. After all, as Billions’ home Showtime and has a front row seat to audience’s positive reactions to outrageous wealth. Black Monday is simply an attempt to go back to the very beginning of the public’s fascination with Wall Street era “greed is good.”
But the show is something a bit more complicated than a period piece. As Black Monday’s creators know, “greed is good” isn’t isolated to any one time period.
“We like to say our little shitty bumper sticker mantra for the show is ‘look how far we haven’t come.’” Cahan says.