HBO's new drama series Industry centers on a group of young finance industry upstarts who balance the ruthless world of hedge funds and investment banking with personal lives that involve a lot of sex and a lot of drugs. If that all sounds a bit over the top, the show's tone is actually a good deal chillier than you might expect. Perhaps too much so, especially in the present-day media landscape, where it's easy for a show that lacks big name stars and/or pre-existing intellectual property get lost amid the sea of too-much-TV.
So is Industry for you? We've screened the show's first four episodes and here's what we think you need to know to decide for yourself:
A combination finance procedural/twenty-something relationship drama, Industry focuses on a handful of just-out-of-college finance types who've just been hired to work at London investment banking firm Pierpoint & Co. As we've been conditioned to expect from every single movie ever made about the finance industry, it's an intense, pitiless, and ultra-competitive atmosphere, and it will be sink or swim for these newbies.
Series creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay don't have a ton of TV experience, but they've both worked in finance, which gives them a crucial insider's perspective here, something that's definitely reflected in how detailed the show is when it comes to the finance stuff. The big-ticket news, of course, is that Girls creator Lena Dunham directed the pilot episode and also serves as a producer.
The major focus of the show is on Harper Stern (Myha’la Herrold), an American in London who's trying to prove herself to her bosses, co-workers, and clients, all while dealing with sideways glances and mutterings because she's Black and she went to SUNY Binghamton instead of, say, Cambridge or Eton or whatever privileged school her colleagues went to. She has the benefit of a mentor, Eric (Ken Leung), a fellow American who's a hardass but sees something in Harper. Her fellow newbies include Yasmin (Marisa Abela), who befriends Harper early on; Robert (Harry Lawtey), whose fervor for his job can't compete with his fervor for sex and drugs; and Gus (David Jonsson), who is Black, gay, and definitely wants you to know he went to Eton. While each of the main first-year characters are portrayed by relative newcomers, some familiar faces (if not names) include Freya Mavor (Skins) as VP of sales Daria, and Will Tudor (Game of Thrones; Humans) as Theo, a research analyst.
Quite a few, actually. The show's juxtaposition between the deep insidery day-to-day of the financial services firm and the complicated, often not very likeable characters who work there owes a clear debt to Mad Men. Others have likened it to a cross between Showtime's Billions and the aforementioned Skins, with all of its sex, drugs and relationships. Certainly Lena Dunham's presence will have people looking for stylistic parallels to Girls, although other than the preponderance of nudity (lotta penises) and the show's emo-electronic soundtrack, there's not much to grab onto there.
More than anything else, the show we kept flashing back to while watching the first few episodes was Grey's Anatomy. Industry is colder, less glossy, and far more eager to have its characters break bad than the long-running ABC medical drama, but the setup of these first-years entering the lion's den, not knowing if they can or should trust each other but being lashed together anyway, is very reminiscent of those early Grey's years. Hell, there's even a replica of the "look to your left, look to your right, half of these people won't be here in a year" scene from the GA pilot.
A lot of that will depend on your tolerance level for the subject matter. Not only does the investment banking industry not inspire a whole lot of warm feelings, but the show spends a ton of time lingering on plots that hinge on the ins and outs of high-stakes finance. There's a reason why Adam McKay's The Big Short employed Selena Gomez to explain what credit default swaps are.
To counterbalance that, Industry layers in a ton of sex and drugs. Cocaine use, gay intrigue, sexual harassment, and someone slipping their panties into the pocket of the guy they want to cheat on their boyfriend with all figure prominently in the show's early episodes. This seems very effortful at first, but as the show's ensemble cast comes into focus and we're able to file the finance stuff away as the business of doing business, it begins to come together.
A lot of the credit for that goes to Herrold, who is immediately engaging as Harper and pulls us in long enough for the other characters to take hold. She's got the shady past we're only getting glimpses of, and she's malleable enough to take her nose ring out at work to please her bosses, but she also goes maverick on an early business deal. It often seems like the show wants to push her into a more typical antihero direction and then pulls back, which, if you've had your fill of 2010s antihero television, is a nice change of pace.
Attempts to make the finance stuff seem trenchant or pointed are hit-and-miss. One of Harper's early pitches to a client involves essentially hedging on the probability of volatile markets amid a U.S. war with China. At another point, the boogeymen of mortgage-backed securities and the 2008 financial crisis are invoked and played with rather recklessly by Harper and her colleagues.
It's not yet clear whether Industry wants to be a big, clanging warning signal to its audience that the international finance industry is up to its old tricks, or to just use it as a backdrop for sexy young singles snorting coke off of each other's body parts. If it can follow through on keeping that balance, there's a chance Industry could deliver something powerful. Or it could drown in audience indifference. The market for a TV show of this sort is pretty volatile, too.
Industry premieres on HBO November 9th at 10:00 PM ET.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.