Wall Street during the 1980s was wild, chaotic, and brash, and the new Showtime series Black Monday wants to make sure you never forget it. Everything in this half-hour comedy — created by David Caspe of Happy Endings fame and Jordan Cahan, who worked with Caspe on NBC’s Marry Me and YouTube’s Champaign ILL — is over the top: the hair, the clothes, the fixation on wealth, the drug habits, and the constant pop-culture references designed to remind you that this is the ’80s, dude.
The first episode, which was made available online last month but officially debuts on Sunday, opens with a dreamscape version of what lower Manhattan looked like in the wake of the events of October 19, 1987, the day of the worst stock market crash in U.S. history, a.k.a. Black Monday. The streets are empty and strewn with paper. A trader sits on the pavement, weeping. Punks spray-paint “Yuppies lost” on a building. Then an unidentified man in a suit falls from the sky and lands on a Lamborghini limousine as red as the leather jacket Eddie Murphy wears in Raw.
“To this day, no one knows what caused the crash,” says a title card, referring to the stock market plunge. “Or who. Until now.”
It’s a kickoff that’s based on some level of truth — yes, there was a real stock market crash on October 19, 1987, and yes, it was devastating — but that also leans into the fantastical and unbelievable. (No, the streets didn’t empty out that day while spiky-haired New Wavers graffitied up everything in Manhattan south of Tribeca.) That’s what Black Monday does, at least in its initial three episodes made available to critics: It takes a serious piece of modern history and builds a jumbled narrative around it that’s full of exaggeration and tastelessness. It’s as if someone said, “What if The Wolf of Wall Street was a TV show, without the satirical self-awareness?”
Or maybe it’s more like someone decided to flux capacitor back in time, Doc-and-Marty style, and rewrite the moments that led up to that fateful October day, which sounds about right for a show set in the same decade as Back to the Future. (Lest you forget that, one character is actually referred to, jokingly, as Michael J. Cocksucker.)
After that vivid beginning, the first episode, directed by executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, rewinds and begins to recount what transpired during the year leading up to the crash at the investment firm owned by Mo Monroe (Don Cheadle). Mo is a Wall Street maverick who proves he’s a maverick by (1) cruising around town in that aforementioned Lamborghini, (2) taking big financial risks that threaten to jeopardize his company, (3) swaggering into meetings at Lehman Brothers in aggressive attempts to acquire shares of Georgina, a designer-jeans company, and (4) professing his love for the take-no-prisoners behavior of Tom Cruise’s character in Top Gun, whose name is … Maverick.
Mo crosses paths in the first episode with Blair Pfaff (Andrew Rannells), a preppy, naïve Wall Street newbie whose market-hacking algorithm has made him a coveted potential hire at all the investment houses. But when Blair runs into Mo — and I do mean literally runs into him, on the trading room floor, causing a nuclear cloud of cocaine to explode from Mo’s suit — he gets framed for having the drugs and loses his cachet. This is all part of a master plan concocted by Mo, who plans to get Blair in his back pocket because he views him as the ticket to his next financial windfall. Questioning his thought process on this, and all things, is Dawn (an ultraconfident Regina Hall), Mo’s colleague and ex who, as the only woman in Mo’s firm, is, naturally, the only character who has any kind of conscience.
As the actors’ names suggest, Black Monday has a hell of a cast. In addition to Cheadle, Rannells, and Hall, Paul Scheer, Casey Wilson, Horatio Sanz, and Ken Marino (playing a dual role as the twin “Lehman brothers,” Lenny and Larry) are among the regular and recurring members of the ensemble. Every one of them tackles their part with enthusiasm and gusto. The problem is that these characters have been scripted on a one-dimensional level, at least at this stage in the season.
Mo is all bluster and, with the exception of Dawn, his cronies at work are stereotypically misogynistic yes-men. (In the third episode, a story line involving Scheer’s character, Keith, implies that there’s more going on beneath his dude-bro surface. But even that side plot is crafted in a way that’s more sitcom-y than it should be.) Hall and Rannells’s performances emerge as the standouts, partly because they’re both so convincing — I burst out laughing when Rannells opened his mouth to yawn on the subway, then flipped out when a fellow passenger sneezed right into it — but also because their characters are the only ones reckoning with their motivations.
A bigger problem still is the show’s tone. Mo casts himself as an unlikely hero, a black man who came from nothing and now lives large in a world dominated by privileged, old-guard white men. But he’s such a showboat and conspicuous consumer that it’s hard to see him as an underdog. It doesn’t help that the jokes put in his and his colleagues’ mouths by Black Monday’s writers are so glibly aware of their own ’80s-ness that they come across as obnoxious rather than sly.
At one point, the phrase, “You just got DeBarge’d” is uttered. In what may be the cringiest bit of dialogue in the first three episodes, Keith refers to the time his son walked in while he was seemingly trying to hang himself, then explains: “It’s called asphixturbation, all right? You know, you choke your chicken while you choke yourself. I learned it from my friend in that band, INXS.”
It’s funny, you see, because Michael Hutchence, the front man of INXS, would eventually die in 1997, allegedly due to attempted autoerotic asphyxiation. And you only get the joke if you remember that Michael Hutchence is dead as well as the circumstances that caused his death. Ha ha ha. Hi…larious?
It’s not impossible to make a show about wealthy assholes that’s both amusing and makes the audience feel invested in their lives. Showtime has done it with Billions, and HBO has, too, with Succession. But Black Monday doesn’t clear the same bar, at least not yet. It promises to tell you who “really” caused the 1987 stock market crash, then it does its damnedest to make you not care enough to stick around and find out the answer.