Looking to undercut the ostentatious insanity that’s defined so many high-finance dramas of the past, “Industry” may have depreciated its next-generation banking story beyond the point of basic interest. Not all narratives about the business of money have to go as gonzo as “The Wolf of Wall Street” or pit rivals in a ferocious battle over billions like, well, “Billions,” but Mickey Down and Konrad Kay’s HBO drama series tracks its cast of fresh college graduates with the workmanlike complacency of a decades-old office drone. They go to work, they make some money (or lose some money), and then they go out.
What drives them to do either is barely unearthed over the first four episodes, and the fleeting bits of commentary about a new generation’s altruistic approach to banking gets overwhelmed by prevalent dense financial jargon. Despite conventional stories and a broadly appealing cast, “Industry” feels too much like the pre-COVID daily grind than an escape from the grind itself.
“Industry” takes place at Pierpoint & Co., a London-based investment bank where only half of new recruits will go on to receive permanent jobs. Yes, those 50-50 odds mean the introductory speech from Eric (Ken Leung), the bank’s managing director, includes the age-old instruction about looking to your left, looking to your right, and hopefully realizing, “Hey, one of these people might not make it,” and, for those who actually went to class at university, “Oh shit! That person might be me!”
So let’s meet the new class of grads. Yasmin (Marisa Abela) comes from a wealthy family and still lives with her disapproving mother, but her penchant for rebellious behavior goes well beyond the many walls of her semi-private, multi-room, single story of the house. Despite being in a relationship with a dopey, financially dependent “journalist,” Yasmin can’t stop herself from flirting with Robert (Harry Lawtey), a co-worker who always ends up at the gym the same time she does. (Is this because they work the same hours and thus have the same time off? Is one of them stalking the other? Is their swank gym really just one small room that forces anyone trapped inside to stare at their fellow exercisers? No idea. Just watch the toned young’ns sweat it up.)
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Robert comes from a working class background, so perhaps a few class disparities will pop up if he and Yasmin ever go beyond lusting at each other over treadmills, but for now that’s all there is between these two. Robert’s roommate, Gus (David Jonsson) could also use further fleshing out, as the Oxford grad built for this way of life is rattled by the one abnormal event of the Lena Dunham-directed pilot (and, really, the first four episodes). This end-of-hour twist is both heavily foreshadowed and jarring, if only because the context is held back — and context is repeatedly a problem for “Industry.”
While brokers, traders, bankers, and financial managers may know all the terminology being tossed around the floor, it’s safe to say the majority of viewers aren’t as steeped in the lingo. (I, for one, admittedly don’t even know if the four jobs I just described are distinct from each other.) Down and Kay, two former finance workers, craft convincing scenarios for their top-tier banking business; it’s just hard to appreciate the stakes of each crisis when you’re not sure what’s going on. It’s even unclear what’s on the line for our main characters. Yes, they’re fighting for a permanent position at Pierpoint, but what’s that worth? Financially, what do they stand to gain? Personally, what’s their motivation for being there? Is this the best bank to work for? Will they be blacklisted or otherwise ostracized if they don’t make the cut and have to seek employment elsewhere?
None of these answers are clear, which makes it difficult to invest in the many, many business dealings “Industry” relies on for its drama. It’s a bit easier to get sucked into the romantic plots, even if it’s too early to invest in any of the participants. The most promising candidate is also our lead protagonist: Harper, played by Myha’la Herrold, is an American who moves to London for her new job. Smart and eager to impress, Harper quickly catches Eric’s eye, and the two form a mentor-mentee relationship buoyed by mystery. Eric seems like the tough-but-fair boss of your dreams, but stray comments and sideways meetings hint at a more complicated reality. Harper’s backstory is also filled with secrets, whether it’s the resume that got her in the door or her family which is rarely mentioned.
Amanda Searle / HBO
In Episode 2, Harper answers a question lingering over “Industry” at large: Aren’t young, hard-partying finance-types the scourge of society? Isn’t spending your life devoted to stockpiling money for big business a soulless endeavor for soulless people? Not if you grew up without money, Harper says, but she stops short of saying any more. Setting the moral soundness of that broad statement aside, “Industry” repeatedly hints that it’s going to delve into relevant industry issues like wealth disparity, racial inequality, and even benevolent purposes for pursuing a career in the field. So far, those talking points haven’t gone any further.
“Industry” has a natural, laid back rhythm in place. It looks slick, like a British “Margin Call,” and the cast seems more than capable to carry whatever they’re given — they just need more to do, and so does the show. Suppressing character development to build up toward big reveals is a tried-and-true storytelling technique, but it’s hard to combine that with dense workplace drama and very little voice. Movies like “Wall Street” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” were criticized for making the “greed is good” attitude of their villainous leads look, well, too good. Misreadings of the classic cautionary tale and hugely enjoyable satire led to emulation and admiration, mainly because Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese put it all out there. Perhaps they overindulged, but “Industry” neglects to dig in at all. Together, these first four hours just seem bland, which — love them or hate them — is something you could never say about old-school finance dramas.
“Industry” premieres Monday, November 9 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.