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Black Monday uses vulgarity and crass jokes to satirize high finance

Black Monday uses vulgarity and crass jokes to satirize high finance
Entertainment
LOS ANGELES—Cocaine has disrupted countless Hollywood productions and that was the case not long ago on the set of Showtime’s new comedy Black Monday. But this time, it was its absence, not its presence, that was the problem.

“I need my coke, sorry,” Regina Hall said, an oversight that brought an elaborate wedding scene to a halt. Clad in a sequined denim bridesmaid dress and an enormous pink hair bow, Hall chatted with her co-star Don Cheadle as extras milled about and someone ran to fetch her nose candy (actually a mix of comparatively benign powders like B-vitamins and starch). At a cluster of monitors, showrunners Jordan Cahan and David Caspe pondered whether key bumps were wedding-appropriate, even in the baroquely dissipated world of 1980s Wall Street.

Andrew Rannells, left, and Don Cheadle star in Showtime’s new Black Monday, which airs Sundays on Crave.  (SHOWTIME)

“Maybe just a cigarette?” Cahan said and soon a production assistant was handing Hall a fake cigarette instead of a vial of fake cocaine.

These are the sorts of behind-the-scenes decisions that arise on Black Monday, an outrageous new comedy that began airing Sunday on Showtime and on Crave in Canada, about a ragtag bunch of traders running a long con on the street’s blue-blood establishment. (Think Bad News Bears meets Trading Places, with lifestyle cues borrowed from The Wolf of Wall Street.)

Cheadle is Maurice “Mo” Monroe, a stock market schemer overseeing the Jammer Group, an underdog firm that includes Hall’s Dawn Towner, the head trader, and Blair Pfaff (Andrew Rannells), a wide-eyed Wharton grad getting a quick and very dirty education in the ethics of high-level finance. (Lesson 1: There aren’t any.)

The degenerate staff is rounded out by Horatio Sanz, Yassir Lester and Paul Scheer, whose puffed-up schlub of a trader manifests multiple flavours of self-hatred.

The multicultural makeup is the most obvious early sign that Black Monday, which is executive produced by Canadians Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad, Preacher, The Disaster Artist), is up to more than just filthy jokes. (Though those are definitely core to the enterprise.)

In positioning a firm whose racial diversity “would not have been allowed at that time,” Cheadle said, against cartoonish Wall Street Brahmins — Ken Marino plays a pair of vapid twins who are supposed to be the Lehman Brothers — the show aims to satirize the monotone culture of high finance and, by extension, American halls of power.

“We joke that the show’s about how far we haven’t come,” Caspe said.

Black Monday is also a tightly plotted murder mystery. The show, which styles itself as a gonzo secret history of the run-up to the 1987 stock market crash of the title, opens with a body plummeting from a Wall Street skyscraper onto Mo’s “Lambo” (a Lamborghini that has been converted into a limousine). The first season reveals the story of both crashes: the identity of that body as well as what caused the cataclysmic market plunge.

And while the show’s dialogue, especially, is defined by broad vulgarity, beneath that surface is an experiment in skewering a benighted milieu without indulging in the very things that made it appalling.

“It’s a full package that I’ve never quite seen, where there’s that many facets that can all be used together,” Goldberg said. “But it’s extremely funny.”

Whatever its facets, Black Monday will live or die on the strength of its jokes, which range from profanely inventive à la Veep to shock-jock puerile. (Aficionados of gleefully crass Apatowian one-liners will be delighted; others might be taxed. Reviews have been mixed.)

The show’s tireless commitment to the laugh feels almost radical, given prestige TV’s current preference for emotionally trenchant comedy. Showtime’s other half-hour shows include SMILF, about a struggling single mom, and Kidding, about a grieving kids TV host.

“It’s been a lot of dramedies,” said Gary Levine, a Showtime president of entertainment. “We were anxious to have that harder comedy.”

Cheadle said: “These guys are joke whores: they’re always trying to get in as many as they can.”

Caspe is best known for creating the cult favourite sitcom Happy Endings. His wife Casey Wilson, one of the stars of that show, also stars in Black Monday. His father and grandfather were commodities traders and Black Monday is inspired by the stories of debauchery he heard growing up.

“My dad told me about leaving work and passing this wave of prostitutes on their way in as he was walking out,” Caspe said. “Guys betting $10,000 on which person across the office is going to go to the bathroom first — just crazy, crazy (expletive).”

Most of the poignancy, at least in the early episodes, comes from Hall’s character’s struggle to be taken seriously both at her job, where she’s surrounded by misogynists, and at home, where her husband (Kadeem Hardison) and parents want her to stop working and start having babies.

The unapologetically wacky Black Monday is a tonal swerve from Hall’s recent films like the police brutality drama The Hate U Give and last summer’s low-fi charmer Support the Girls.

“Everything I’m doing, I remember seeing my mom do in the ’80s,” she said on the set, bow flapping as she emphasized her points. “They put on pantyhose every day and they did the damn thing.”

The series is most interesting when it deals with the day-to-day marginalization of its outsiders: Mo as an African-American CEO; Dawn as an underestimated woman; other characters as closeted gays in a time of shameless homophobia. But as seen in other depictions of the time, like the relentlessly hard-R Wolf of Wall Street, in practice the difference between parodying a world and indulging in its abuses can be slim to the point of meaninglessness.

“It was a really difficult line to draw, because you want the era to feel authentic, but the last thing you want to do is offend the people the show is about,” Cahan said.

So while the pervy traders of Black Monday obsess over strip bars, no actual female nudity appears in the series. A gay slur is uttered early in the season, but it’s used to identify a villain and also spark a character’s growing acceptance of his sexuality.

“I won’t know if we walked the line correctly until we see some response to the show,” Caspe said. “Which is terrifying.”
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