Like the stock market in recent weeks, “Black Monday” is volatile, but its principal value is a bullish performance from lead Don Cheadle as Maurice “Mo” Monroe, head of second-tier Wall Street trading firm, The Jammer Group, in the year of Black Monday, when international stock markets crashed in 1987. Mo is a fun character to play. He’s ruthless, sardonic, and all id, and there’s a mystery, in that audiences aren’t told much about how he came to be who he is. Still, he’s engaging, if only to see what disreputable thing he might do next. And he’s ultimately the spark that keeps this somewhat muddled series from straying entirely.
Season 1 of the series followed Mo and his team of misfit traders, including no-nonsense Dawn (Regina Hall), eager-to-please Keith (Paul Scheer), wild man Wayne (Horatio Sanz), and hotshot Yassir (Yassir Lester). Into this motley mix walks Blair Pfaff (Andrew Rannells), a young wide-eyed trader who gets in way over his head. Together, they took on the moneyed, blue-blood, old-boys club of New York finance and ended up unwittingly crashing the world’s largest financial system, leading to the worst stock market crash in history, aka Black Monday.
Friends became enemies, traders became traitors, and two characters died.
Season 2 picks up after the Black Monday crash, focusing on the aftermath, with Mo framed for murder, while his former colleagues work on their next hustles. Mo, who has swapped his afro for a strange perm, is on the run for the crimes he committed in Season 1. Once the high-living risk taker with dreams of building an empire on Wall Street by hook or crook — mostly crook — Mo is now laying low in a Miami motel, thinking up a new scheme.
Meanwhile, Dawn and Blair, now on the rise, quickly learn that heavy is the head that wears the crown, especially when that head is constantly looking over its shoulder for Mo, whom they partnered up to screw over. Dawn is running her own majority-women brokerage firm, although struggling to be taken seriously in a white-male-dominated world; while the once Waspy aspiring trader Blair, played with geeky enthusiasm by Rannells, finds his mojo, and is now married to his long suffering, although opportunistic beard, Tiff (Casey Wilson). The pair’s new scheme sees them charming and blackmailing politicians into deregulating banks, in a bid to purchase their own.
Finally, Keith (Paul Scheer), who’s on the run with Monroe, has finally come out, after hiding his sexuality from his coworkers. Reconciling with the consequences in 1980s America, he’s also wrestling with a new dangerous money-making scheme.
Who will go down for the crash, the murders and for fleecing Mo? All is promised to be revealed in Season 2.
Pluses include flashbacks to the blossoming, though the fraught relationship between Mo and Dawn, prior to formation of The Jammer Group, which serve the dual purpose of also showing Mo’s rise from floor trader to Wall Street biggie — a necessary plotline that was missing from the first season, which now affords the audience the full account of his rise and fall(ish).
Although, while there are clearly legal consequences to the actions that led to his descent, the morality behind them is muffled.
Each character is dealing with the realization that, in some ways, they got exactly what they were striving for during all of the first season, but now, aren’t quite certain if it was worth the cost. Happiness quickly becomes misery and uncertainty, and they inevitably start to find their way back to each other. There’s a whole genre of Wall Street fiction in which people doing bad things are glamorized, but the lives and work of the characters in “Black Monday” never really seem attractive.
The second season maintains the same velocity of the first, barreling through time and space, boosted by pop songs of the era like “Running With the Night” (Lionel Richie), “Kokomo” (The Beach Boys), “I Want to Break Free” (Queen), and much more. There’s thumping musical endorsement throughout, one wonderful classic after another.
The backstabbing and double-crossing continues, while giving viewers a tantalizing, if cartoonish, peek into the boardrooms and bedrooms of some of the country’s rich and powerful.
There’s plenty happening, and it’s easy to get lost in the Wall Street jargon-filled, rapid-fire fracas of it all, which some may find more of a chore to keep up with. This series sprints frantically, like its appalling antihero after an ecstatic toke of cocaine. One minute, a down-and-out Mo is licking wounds, and the next, he’s knee-deep in a new scheme. And by the end of the third episode (press were given the first three to preview), he’s on the run again, after a backroom deal goes south, and he finds himself in the middle of a shootout. Boarding a plane with a cash stash, to who knows where, The Beach Boys “Kokomo” plays in the background: “Aruba, Jamaica; oh I want to take you to Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama; Key Largo, Montego…”
“Black Monday” seems to want to have a critical, if satirical take on the world its characters inhabit and the characters themselves. It wants to link its profane take on politics and financial greed to the Trump era, attempting to toe the line between being offensive comedy and issue-driven. Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear what it’s really trying to say. After the real Black Monday, the Mo Monroes of the world figured out how to operate more subtly, with less regulation and more agreeable branding, ultimately leading to the 2008 financial crisis. And so the series doesn’t reckon with Wall Street’s continued detestable lack of ethics. Audiences who expect the second season to grapple with these issues will be disappointed.
What does work well is the cast, having the time of their lives playing despicable characters with aplomb. They are believable, ultimately the series’ redeeming glimmers.
Also, despite being set in the late 1980s, there’s a topicality to the series that speaks to the present, namely the unfettered capitalism of the day, when billion-dollar businesses like Whole Foods suggest that their non-Coronavirus-infected employees donate their vacation time to sick employees, or the members of the House and Senate debating whether a vaccine that helps stop the pandemic, should be free, or come at an “affordable” cost.
And, like President Donald Trump, Mo is pompous, gregariousness, and hungers for power; ethics are optional. Both are all id, which means unhinged, compulsively narcissistic and malignantly so. And if Cheadle lends Mo all his own easy charisma, he also transforms instantly into contorted rage and animal energy.
At its best, “Black Monday” operates as a satire meant to epitomize everything that has gone wrong with big money culture. At its worst, it’s a muddle. If there is a destination, it takes the most circuitous path to get there. It feels frenzied and forced, as though straining to make the most over-the-top series depicting Wall Street excess ever.
The second season of “Black Monday” premieres Sunday, March 15 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.
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