The slang term “Bulge Bracket” generally refers to the largest multinational investment banks. As of July 2020, “Bulge Bracket” additionally refers to a TVshow produced by Christopher Au.
Despite its unfortunate name, “Bulge Bracket” introduces a relatable Asian American protagonist and rejects soapy genre mainstays. Unlike other high-stress high-drama workplace shows like “The Good Wife” and “Suits,” “Bulge Bracket” doesn’t aspire to be sexy or soapy. Sans steamy workplace romances, Au develops his show around stress and professional hurdles. By cleaving so close to reality, the independently produced show depicts a frighteningly familiar corporate grind.
Au delves into professional stresses through the lens of novice banker Cathy (Jessika Van, “Awkward”). She faces capricious bosses, frat-bro work culture and unhelpful HR departments.
Though Cathy happens to be Asian, Au treats her as a regular character. Au acknowledges her Asian American-ness but thankfully dodges the overwhelming urge some TV producers feel to harp on and problematize an Asian American character’s ethnicity. Instead, Cathy is first and foremost a woman operating within a very white, institutionalized space. In the show, Cathy’s primary concern is not her Asian-ness. Rather, it’s whether sacrificing her health, relationships and wellbeing is worth uncertain professional success.
But while not making it the center of his character narrative, Au does not skimp on excellent Asian American commentary. Through different APIA (Asian and Pacific Islander American) characters, Au shows that Asian-American-ness is an ethnic umbrella term and not a personality trait. Emphatically: Not all Asians are the same.
In one fantastic exchange, Cathy asks her co-workers where she should rent a hotel for her parents. Danny (Chris King Wong, “Better Call Saul”) her underling analyst quips, “What kind of Asian are you?” noting that his parents always stay in his tiny apartment when they visit. On screen, Cathy shruggs and awkwardly explains that she lives with her boyfriend, a statement that makes Danny raise his eyebrows.
In this exchange, “Bulge Bracket” ribs at a mythologized monolithic Asian American. Not all Asians are the same and there is no “correct” way of being Asian American. To quote a dear friend of mine, “For just as many Asian Americans that there are, there are just as many valid ways of being Asian American.”
By virtue of having more than one Asian American character, Au is able weave in these illuminating scenarios without being heavy-handed. In that same fantastic exchange, Danny personally identified frugality and modesty as Asian traits, yet Cathy, also Asian American, does not identify with his definition.
“Bolo” (Feodor Chin, “Big Little Lies”) is another character Au uses to combat Asian American stereotypes. Cathy’s boss is loud, capricious and hyper-masculine. He plays golf with the other high-level executives, having broken through the bamboo ceiling. But his success belies the things he sacrificed to become a top-level banker.
In the denouement, however, Bolo reveals a more serious side to his character. He discloses to Cathy that his name is actually John and that a racist coworker nicknamed him “Bolo” during his first year as an analyst grunt. Like Cathy, Bolo suffered racist microaggressions and weathered mercurial bosses. In the end, he tells Cathy that if she sticks with the firm, he will make sure she gets good, career-building cases.
Finally! Someone on the show recognized the existence of racism and articulated it! For the entirety of the first season, the firm’s pervasive Culture of Silence stymied any genuine in-world discourse. Still, Bolo’s cathartic revelation leaves a bitter aftertaste. Only Bolo’s privilege as an executive-level banker allows him to put a word to the crime. His ability to articulate reality comes from a place of privilege.
In the world of “Bulge Bracket,” without powerful industry connections, a single misstep can cause professional ruin. Having conversations about race and discrimination are unproductive for most employees; HR is unresponsive and bank superiors are unsympathetic. Corporate does not valorize honesty. The “Bulge Bracket” unequivocally demands personal sacrifice and conformity.
At the end of the day, I hesitate to label the show’s corporate environment as hellish. The show is based off of Au’s wife Cindy’s own two-year stint in the bulge bracket. The world Au depicts is firmly rooted in an earthly reality. There’s a notable lack of elicit file cabinet rendezvous. Instead, the show depicts un-sexy sexual harassment and a young capable employee being ground into the dirt by stress. “Bulge Bracket” digs into corporate politics and presents the corporate workplace for what it is: absurd, montonimous and stressful.
I was incredibly pleased by this unassuming show. I feasted well on “Bulge Bracket,” temporarily satiating my desire for good television and unmatched Asian American representation.
For this food rec, I struggled to think of something mobile for stressed corporate clogs. My ultimate response is a Panera Bread poppy-seed bagel with plain cream cheese.
However, in honor of my banker aunt, I am additionally recommending a side of lox and a generous sprinkle of capers. My addendums are a little more luxurious than a 100+ hour work week would permit but I am an advocate for treating oneself.
Daily Arts Columnist Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at email@example.com.