When you’ve landed a gig in your dream field, nothing is more addictive than taking that first step on the proverbial corporate ladder. The combination of finally “making it” but also not knowing whether it will all go away with one unforeseen gaff can be anxiety-inducing and inebriating, but sometimes it also draws out bloodthirst. More often than not it’s a mixture of both. So is it any wonder that safe work environments have been a frequent topic of conversation as of late?
For all that talk of toxic workplaces in 2020, HBO’s “Industry” seems to revel in the concept. And that isn’t a bad thing. The eight-episode series, created by Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, slowly unravels the culture at a leading bank in London by following a group of graduates hired on to compete for a limited number of positions. Ambition and hunger are encouraged as the new employees scheme and sacrifice in order to impress their bosses, sometimes falling into a frenzied cycle of Red Bull, Perrier and stimulants to get there.
Our entry point is Harper (Myha’la Herrold) a New Yorker with early secrets who impresses her boss Eric Tso (Ken Leung) by listing her IQ score on her resume and talking up meritocracy in her interview. Once she’s in, she and her colleagues—overconfident Gus (David Jonsson), workaholic Hari (Nabhaan Rizwan) and privileged Robert (Harry Lawtey) among them—scramble to find their bearings. Fittingly, they also blow off steam with one another whether sexually, through a cocktail of drugs, or with antic-filled all-nighters. Work hard, play harder, learn who you’re becoming.
It’s a crowded space literally and figuratively. The bustling tight quarters of the banking floor are a downright antithesis to social distancing during these current coronavirus times. Those loud, hectic shots are juxtaposed with quiet moments of reflection from the core cast as they gaze around and contemplate how they got there. Or, what to do next—it’s not always clear. When the action does pick up, themes of gender, race, class, and privilege are crammed into nearly every scene, as higher ups exercise their power, cajole, threaten and highlight what kind of future may be in store for these youngins should they continue down this path.
Not all upper management is so toxic. While there are unwanted sexual advances and spoon-fed company lines doled out from the top-down, the series manages to feature many of its female relationships in a positive light, even when the females themselves are as skeevy as their male counterparts. There’s mid-level Daria (Freya Mavor), who quickly takes Harper under her wing and emerges as one of the banking world’s very few “good guys.” Big boss Sara Dhadwal (Piryanga Burford) also appears to, at times, have her employees’ best interests at heart. Although in the first four episodes available to review there are so many characters and so much plot to chew through, there just isn’t enough time to delve into her backstory.
Nor should there be. Unlike other series tackling the world of finance this one is told strictly from an entry-level point of view. In that vein the complex relationship between Harper and her equally green co-worker Yasmin (Marisa Abela) becomes a central one to the series. Both women are complex characters on their own, but they’re even more interesting when their stories come together. Whereas Harper hides her past and easily impresses at work under her managers’ guidance, Yasmin is relegated to an approval-seeking errand girl who struggles to prove her worth to her coworkers and affluent family alike. As a result she searches for power wherever she can take it in her personal life, from throwing lavish dinner parties in her mother’s basement to taking charge in the bedroom.
That parallel between power and sex is messy but prevalent throughout, and exactly what you’d expect from a high-stakes series about finance that stars beautiful young people. The first episode, which was directed by executive producer Lena Dunham, doesn’t discriminate between the sexes or shy away from hard nipples and full frontals in the slightest. In fact the “Girls” creator herself once likened the project to a mix of “Wolf of Wall Street” meets “Melrose Place,” invoking images of sexy times by the pool while rich people throw money around and sip cocktails. A better comparison may be “Succession” meets “Grey’s Anatomy,” but in the first four episodes at any rate, glossed-over emotional turns and strong but understated performances (led by the one-to-watch Herrold) deter the narrative from delving into soapy territory.
Indeed there are no heroes among this ambitious crew, although Harper, who boasts about once writing an 8,000-word paper on the moral case for capitalism, perhaps comes closest. Just when they lift each other up or you begin to root for a character they fall back into typical Wallstreet prototypes, diving into the deep end with the other sharks in search of the highs of attainment.
Sure, this is a series that casually throws out on-the-nose lines like “it’s gauche to judge success with money” or “sometimes this place makes you forget yourself.” But when it stops to add context to the tough—and very real issues—it teases from the onset, “Industry” has the potential to turn viewers bullish even in the most bearish of markets.
“Industry” debuts Monday, Nov. 9 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.