It’s possible to nail all the details but miss the feeling entirely. Showtime’s new comedy “Black Monday” — which dropped its first episode online for free Dec. 28 ahead of a Jan. 20 premiere — is crammed with references to its late-1980s setting, from graffiti-choked subway cars to distressed denim to jokes about Nancy Reagan and Marion Barry. It also limns the mean-spirited, insult-heavy mood of an overheated Wall Street brokerage to a fault, with Don Cheadle playing a mastermind of a trader manipulating those around him in order to reach a big payday. Cheadle is charismatic as ever, but that the plot makes little real sense ultimately seems, in the show’s early going, not to matter much at all. It’s fitting, perhaps, for a show about a stock market bubble eventually bursting: This show leverages everything it can, but behind the hypercolor tones and florid trader-speak, there’s little behind it all.
Cheadle’s Maurice “Mo” Monroe is a trader whose expertise extends beyond the mechanics of buying and selling; for him, trading is both a way to prove dominance and a subtle art of taking calculated risks. To wit, the pilot follows his extended games with recent MBA grad Blair Pfaff (Andrew Rannells), an unfortunate fellow who Mo first frames for possessing cocaine on the trading floor and then torments a bit more before hiring him; we ultimately learn that Mo cares little about Blair, but has designs on his family connections. They’ll allow him to back into a controlling position in a major corporation, which will make for a fun pastime in the free hours he has when not doing coke or bragging about his sexual prowess.
There’s some common DNA here with the film “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which also took as its subject late-20th-century financial-industry excesses while spending at least a little time reveling in just how fun it can be to be bad. But that film, from its earliest minutes, evinced a clear understanding that even its most juicily fun misdeeds existed within a moral universe. “Black Monday” is a comedy as amoral as its characters, and after a while, the laughs begin to stick in the throat. The gifted Regina Hall, remarkably building a character from very little on the page, calls Rannells’s character “Michael J. Cocksucker”; later, he says that Cheadle’s Mo “just does things to you, like my gymnastics team doctor.” Mo brags about profiting from the AIDS crisis (he says he “went long on condoms, because I knew that shit had legs”) and jokes about freebasing with the mayor of Washington. “Mayor Barry!” Hall shouts.
It’s that last beat that gets at how frustrating “Black Monday” can be: It congratulates the viewer for simply knowing who Marion Barry was. And while it’s not impossible to imagine a Barry joke, or an AIDS joke, or a gay joke, that lands, of course, those jokes need to be earned through a bit more than just asking the viewer to acknowledge a reference was just made. The jokes aren’t always quite as flaccid; as in series co-creator David Caspe’s terrific last show “Happy Endings,” the comic density is high. If you don’t like a punchline, just wait ten seconds — there’ll be another. But previously, Caspe’s wit was put towards a story of no consequence and with low stakes; that the stakes are similarly low here feels more like an accident than a creative choice. And the jokes, absent grounding in solid story, tend to end up punching down, when they don’t just exist to prove how much more the average viewer in the late 2010s knows than the characters, trapped in the ’80s.
There’s hope yet for “Black Monday,” whose first three episodes are carried across with confidence if nothing else; even when characters are delivering long and clumsily written chunks of exposition, they carry it off like tightly crafted David Mamet dialogue. But the show badly needs to crack the Mo character. We know, from the early going, that he’s a rapacious shark who needs to win every financial and conversational exchange. But there’s only so much amusement to be had reveling in bad behavior and naughty jokes. An entirely amoral trading floor, with nastily barbed banter and master schemes whose floaty insubstantiality is the point, is a fun enough place to visit. But at a season’s length, I can’t imagine wanting to live there.
“Black Monday.” Showtime, Jan. 20. 30 min.
Executive Producers: David Caspe, Jordan Cahan, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver, Don Cheadle
Cast: Don Cheadle, Andrew Rannells, Regina Hall, Paul Scheer