Showtime’s ‘Black Monday’ is high-risk but low-yield

Sunday, January 27, 2019 - 5:01pm

NOSELL

"Black Monday"

The worst day in American stock market history was not in 1929, as one might expect. It actually came in Oct. of 1987 — a day dubbed Black Monday, when the Dow fell a steep, devastating 22 percent. The crash began in Hong Kong, snaked through Europe and continued west, an early example of the complications posed by a contemporary globalized financial system. Nothing, not 9/11 nor the collapse of Lehman, has ever eclipsed Black Monday, or even come close.

When the dust settled, it wasn’t entirely obvious what caused Black Monday. Computerized trading is a popular suspected culprit. Others point to the weak dollar or previous overvaluation. There isn’t one clear, satisfying answer. “Until now,” says the opening sequence of Showtime’s “Black Monday,” a new gonzo comedy set a year prior to the crash that promises its own imagined explanation.

Mo Monroe (Don Cheadle, “Hotel Rwanda”) is the scrappy founder of The Jammer Group, an underdog Wall Street firm that employs a boorish, ragtag bunch. To orchestrate a hostile takeover of the lucrative Georgina Jeans, Mo hires the wide-eyed Blair Plaff (Andrew Rannells, “Girls”), fresh out of Wharton with an algorithm that’s the talk of the trading floor. Dawn, the firm’s head trader and lone woman, played by the brilliant Regina Hall (“Support the Girls”) becomes a sort of audience surrogate who can roll her eyes at the frat bros of Wall Street and their excesses. And, oh boy, are there excesses. Lambo limo? Robot butler? Cocaine? Check, check, check.

There is something about ’80s greed that feels very interesting right now. Maybe it’s because the embodiment of that era currently sits in the White House. Or maybe it’s that this moment of personal brands and soulless influencer hustle seems sprung from a Reaganesque mythos of individual responsibility. But “Black Monday,” however prescient it could be, never manages to say anything insightful about the decade beyond big hair, Marion Barry, denim and “Let’s Make a Deal.”

Whatever this is, it isn’t a satirical period piece so much as it is an overly long “SNL” sketch, replete with tedious ’80s jokes and references, a few too many of which are anachronistic (Crystal Pepsi came out in 1992!). Several of them mine audience hindsight for their humor: In the second episode, a screenwriter shadows Mo as research for an untitled Oliver Stone movie about Wall Street. Deployed with more restraint, these would qualify as hidden Easter eggs. On this show, they’re akin to what might happen if Clayton Kershaw got his hands on a few cartons of Eggland’s Best and decided to practice his fastball.

This brand of television — surreal, chaotic, irreverent — could probably be very good. But “Black Monday” has few ambitions beyond shock value. There are some funny jokes, but even those are something of a statistical inevitability given the show’s joke density — the vast majority land flat. Tonally, “Black Monday” hasn’t quite decided who we’re supposed to care for and how much. And sure, this is difficult to do when your show is about inherently unsympathetic people in a much-despised industry. But littered across the TV landscape are successful examples — HBO’s “Succession,” even Showtime’s own “Billions.” The characters on those shows are by no means lovable, but at the very least, they’re worth investing in.