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‘Black Monday’ Plays the Wall Street Crash for Laughs

Andrew Rannells, left, and Don Cheadle, center, star in Showtime’s new TV series ‘Black Monday.’
Andrew Rannells, left, and Don Cheadle, center, star in Showtime’s new TV series ‘Black Monday.’ Photo: SHOWTIME

Ever since the movie “Wall Street” fixed the world of cutthroat stockbrokers in the popular imagination more than 30 years ago, screenwriters have returned to that setting for stories about money and power.

That, plus scenes of excess and debauchery, which was the bigger selling point for the creators of Showtime’s new comedy “Black Monday.” Set to premiere on Sunday, the series conjures its own version of what led to the market crash of 1987, complete with a long con, piles of cocaine and jokes that would trigger human-resources investigations in today’s workplaces.

Don Cheadle stars as an impulsive trader who captains a misfit firm with his more levelheaded lieutenant, played by Regina Hall.Andrew Rannells plays a square who lands with the firm after he and his computerized trading program fall flat.

‘Black Monday’ creates its own version of what led to the market crash of 1987, with a cast that includes, from top left, Yassir Lester, Eugene Cordero and Paul Scheer; from bottom left, Andrew Rannells and Regina Hall.
‘Black Monday’ creates its own version of what led to the market crash of 1987, with a cast that includes, from top left, Yassir Lester, Eugene Cordero and Paul Scheer; from bottom left, Andrew Rannells and Regina Hall. Photo: SHOWTIME

“Black Monday” revels in period status symbols such as suspenders and double-breasted suits. Mr. Cheadle’s character is ferried around New York in a Lamborghini-limousine hybrid and boasts about hiring Don Henley to perform at his birthday party. Showtime, whose other high-finance series, “Billions,” is set in the 21st century, joined in the ’80s shtick for “Black Monday” by resurrecting a vintage logo and jingle (“It’s Showtime tonight!”) for the new show’s title credits.

The show’s producers say the stock-market setting gave them a way to make a comedy with high stakes. “At most jobs, getting fired would be the worst day ever. On Wall Street, you can lose everything and be penniless by the end of the day,” says executive producer Jordan Cahan, a creator of the series with writing partner David Caspe, whose father was a Chicago-based commodities trader in the ’80s.

Filmmakers and TV producers have often portrayed financiers as aggressive and reckless as a way to illustrate Wall Street’s flaws. As Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” Michael Douglas made “greed is good” one of the memorable lines of the 1980s. More recently, Leonardo DiCaprio’s drugged-out pump-and-dump scammer in 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” represented director Martin Scorsese’s reaction to the financial crisis.

In contrast, “Black Monday” seeks to lampoon the types of characters who typified Wall Street then and linger in the working world today. “We really tried to be careful to make it clear that we’re satirizing that culture, not celebrating it,” says Mr. Cahan.

In the first episode, for example, traders riff on the similar nicknames they have given the cocaine they buy and the prostitutes they hire. However, while “Black Monday” depicts drug use aplenty, producers of the pay-cable series say they chose not to depict any female nudity.

“That was a way to illustrate the problem without having to also be part of the problem as television producers,” Mr. Caspe says.

Mr. Cheadle, an Oscar nominee for “Hotel Rwanda,” was recruited for “Black Monday” by David Nevins, head of Showtime and chief creative officer of parent company CBS, along with “Black Monday” executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The show’s creators, who had written the pilot script seven years ago, rewrote it around Mr. Cheadle and the angle of an African-American investment whiz taking on blue-blooded rivals, including fictional Lehman Brothers twins who are both played by Ken Marino.

“That’s an opportunity to talk about and deal with things we wouldn’t have if the casting goal was, ‘Get me Gordon Gekko 2.0,’ ” Mr. Cheadle says.

In the mid-’80s, he was starting his career with parts in films such as “Hamburger Hill” and “Colors,” when a booming and soon-to-bust stock market produced a new template for heroes and villains. “Black Monday” gets into the human flaws behind that, he says, though he’s not analyzing any of it too deeply.

“It’s not a polemic on greed,” Mr. Cheadle says. “It’s more like, ‘Watch these idiots try to navigate this insane time when people were wilding out.’ ”

Beyond ‘Wall Street’

  • “The Big Short”: Director Adam McKay’s 2015 film tackles complex instruments of finance as it follows a hedge fund manager (Christian Bale) and other players who discover a way to exploit the bursting of the housing bubble.
  • “Margin Call”: Singled out by Wall Street hands as one of Hollywood’s most realistic depictions of their environment, this 2011 thriller by writer and director J.C. Chandor captures 24 hours inside an investment firm facing disaster.
  • “Boiler Room”: Long before “The Wolf of Wall Street,” this 2000 movie starring Giovanni Ribisi and Ben Affleck explored the investment world’s underbelly of cold calls and pump-and-dump schemes.
  • “Working Girl”: Melanie Griffith led director Mike Nichols’s 1988 urban fairy tale and time capsule of yuppie fashion. She plays a secretary whose boss (Sigourney Weaver) steals her idea for a merger, so she pulls a ruse of her own to get ahead.
  • “Trading Places”: From “Animal House” director John Landis, this 1983 comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd hinges on a social experiment and a surprisingly detailed plot involving orange-juice futures.

Write to John Jurgensen at john.jurgensen@wsj.com

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