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Opinion: ‘Black Monday’ sells catastrophe as comedy

  • The show is about the unexplained October 1987 US stock market crash 
  • It stars Don Cheadle and Regina Hall, and the executive producers are Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

Don Cheadle plays a Wall Street trader in ‘Black Monday’. 
Don Cheadle plays a Wall Street trader in ‘Black Monday’. 

What could be the point of a Lamborghini limousine? It doesn’t have the speed of a supercar or the comfort of a limousine, as someone on the new series Black Monday points out, but—crucially—that isn’t the character who owns it. The whole idea of excessive, obscene spending is the utter pointlessness. What could be a greater luxury than something nobody needs? In another episode, he boasts about entering a bidding war over a “Basque-yacht" which happens to be a yacht “entirely muralized by Jean-Michel (Basquiat)". The very concept of such a boat is nonsensical, and this over-the-top ostentation works only because the person who shops for these absurd artefacts is one helluva character.

His name is Maurice Monroe, and he’s played with door-kicking dynamism by Don Cheadle. An endlessly watchable performer, Cheadle creates a character with too much swagger to be contained in one person, so his kooky can-do energy hops from him to co-actors to the audience, setting up the show’s vibe. Mo is Wall Street’s most successful black trader, with a firm bewilderingly called The Jammer Group, because, like he says in an outburst where he names a chair Sam and a door Steve, he can name anything he wants. The show starts with a suicide, however, and when we meet Mo in 1986, we aren’t sure if he’s the one who will name the infamous (and hitherto unexplained) stock market crash of 19 October 1987.

Black Monday, available in India on Hotstar Premium, is about the Wall Street crash of that name, and flags off the action with a body plummeting to its death atop the ketchup-red limousine. Death is but a joke, though, and this show created by David Caspe and Jordan Cahan takes a highly slapstick (and roundabout) route to try and tell us how the catastrophic crash occurred. Lehman Brothers, for instance, are depicted as a pair of identical twins, played by Ken Marino, who complete the other’s sentences (one Lehman is more keen on this than the other) and are rumoured to have slept together. Yep, this is that kinda nuts.

The first episode is directed by executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and it is just the kind of ridiculously, overtly 1980s nonsense you can expect from a team like this, with a Jheri-curled Cheadle swooshing around at the centre, channelling his own House Of Lies fourth-wall-breaking omniscience, claiming to know it all while never really being in control. Drunk on his own mythology, Mo spins his black-man-infiltrating-white-world legend to a young screenwriter researching a film about Wall Street to be directed by someone called Oliver (ahem), but Mo is not inspirational enough to be Hollywoodized by Oliver Stone, whose Wall Street came out the year of the crash. Instead, the writer reckons Mo’s partner Dawn has a better story, and that another director friend, Mike Nichols, may be interested, since he’s looking to make a film called Working Girl.

Dawn, played by Regina Hall, is the show’s most reliably cool character, a woman tired of the sexism and racism in and around the financial world and one unafraid to call the juvenile bears out on their bull. Dawn is as foul-mouthed and unscrupulous as the boys around her, but is always the sharpest one in the room, though the room sets an admittedly low bar, filled as it is with cocaine and clowns.

Black Monday starts out aiming for an element of mystery. We don’t see who commits suicide at the start of the show, save for the victim’s emerald tie-pin, which changes hands by the end of each episode. Because the show is so focused on the jokes and the vibe, however, this mystery doesn’t yet seem pressing. The tone is uneven and there are times it spells things out too much, but there is definite potential here—and I’ll admit that makes me sound like a speculative investor. Still, there’s nothing wrong with watching Cheadle and Hall, surrounded by a bunch of familiar comedic actors, as they all play-act The Wolf Of Wall Street by way of Silicon Valley. What all of this leads to is another story, but must it have a point?

It is ultimately about commodification. Television today hasn’t heard a real-life premise it couldn’t stretch too far—like the unfortunately elongated Lamborghini—and this series is a natural double-sell: revolving around the men and women of Wall Street, who build their mansions and buy their yachts by repackaging and selling worthless stocks. Just make the box easier to buy. Even the darkest day in their history sounds like a hashtag advertising a premature discount sale.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

He tweets at @rajasen

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