Every show wants to start with a bang. “Black Monday” begins with a literal bang. It’s October 19, 1987, the worst stock market crash in Wall Street’s history. A dead body flies off the roof and slams into a Lamborghini limousine. The show, which features a promising cast and creative team, also takes a similar thud. It wants to be a jack of all trades. The recipe seems simple enough – take the debauchery of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” add in the crisis moralization of “The Big Short,” shoehorn it into the familiar “new kid on the block” story device and tack on an “in media res” central mystery. All of these elements mixed together feels half-baked. “Black Monday” has an interesting topic, but it chose to tell it four different ways rather than focusing on one interesting way.
While “Black Monday” starts on the titular horror day, the bulk of the show takes place one year earlier. Maurice Monroe (Don Cheadle) is a grand trader who does lots of cocaine, has a robot butler and makes shady (aka illegal) deals. His firm is an up-and-comer on Wall Street with a colorful band of traders, namely Dawn Darcy (Regina Hall), Maurice’s tough confidant and prized employee. At the same time, wunderkind Blair Pfaff (Andrew Rannells) arrives with his winning algorithm, ready for his first job on Wall Street and his pick of the company. After an unfortunate run-in with Monroe on the floor sends Pfaff’s initial promising reputation plummeting, he’s forced to seek employment from Monroe himself.
The show boasts a tremendous cast. Unfortunately, their talents are simultaneously showcased and wasted in the same breath. It’s always welcome to see Don Cheadle on screen. The role of Maurice Monroe, the stock market megastar with as much cocaine as cash, looks on paper to be a great Cheadle role. Don Cheadle chews more scenery in the pilot alone than he did on even one full season of “House of Lies” (also on Showtime). Every scene of his features at least one self-aggrandizing monologue after another. He even gets a robot butler. However, for as much as the show (and his character) tells us we should care about him, we still don’t understand why.
We stop caring because the character only exists in superlatives. If he’s not operating on high alert giving grand coke-fueled lectures, he doesn’t exist. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers the same boisterous, hedonistic screeds in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but manages to tie that into one man’s rise and fall from power. The show seems to head towards Maurice’s fall (and the fall of Wall Street as a whole). However, his quirks just exist in an empty vacuum rather than advancing plot. This brings up the more damning problem at “Black Monday’s” core. It doesn’t know what show it wants to be, so it does a lot of different things poorly.
Regina Hall’s Dawn Darcy comes off as another dynamic hire and missed opportunity. She goes toe to toe with Cheadle’s Maurice Monroe, both in terms of trading and dealing insults. Dawn gives us an interesting perspective into the glass ceiling in Wall Street in 1987. However, there is a glass ceiling in the show for how much time she’s really given. Hall gets enough time to show us that we need more of her. However, that would cut into Don Cheadle’s monologue time. Did people not see “Support the Girls” and realize she can do anything?
What creators Jordan Cahan and David Caspe seem most comfortable with is perhaps the most straightforward approach to the story. Andrew Rannells brings a manic, wide-eyed enthusiasm to Pfaff’s naive whiz kid. He acts as our entry point for the show, but also for a different type of show. He brings a sort of live wire zaniness that’s full stop comedy. The chemistry between him and his wife, Tiff Georgina (Casey Wilson), seems taken from one of the more absurd Seth Rogen comedies. It helps that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg directed the first episode. However, it’s so different tonally from all the other elements that it feels like a mistake more than anything.
Perhaps making a goofier and more outlandish look at Black Monday would’ve made a more compelling and palatable. In its heart of hearts, that seems like what the show truly wants to be. However, as a new offering with A-list talent on a premium cable network, “Black Monday” feels it needs to have some level of prestige. Yet, the sets look back-lots and sound-stages in distracting ways. The actors don’t seem to be lit well at all. Even the 80s nostalgia, the cheapest crutch the show can hang its hat on, seems to only be done halfheartedly. If you want to be broad and goofy, be broad and goofy. Swinging for all of these other ambitions only ensures that you’re going to strike out.