Describing Showtime’s dramedy Black Monday as the black Wolf of Wall Street is lazy, yet inevitable. The show, set in the year leading up to the global stock market crash on October 19th, 1987, centers on Maurice “Mo” Monroe (Don Cheadle) and his investment firm the Jammer Group featuring star trader Dawn Darcy (Regina Hall). The show is as much of an unflinching look into the institutionalized debauchery of Wall Street as Martin Scorsese’s 2013 masterpiece. Especially if the first 34 minutes of the series is any indication.
In the first episode (“365”), a body falls through the hood of a Lamborghini Limousine (aka “Lambo Limo”), Mo is gifted cocaine for his birthday, and a coworker flops an uncircumcised penis on Wall Street newcomer Blair Pfaff’s (Andrew Rannells) shoulder while he’s working. Once you see how the show’s comedic appeal is powered by Mo, an abhorrent, predatorial capitalist who will gladly starve a child to fatten his pocket, it’d be natural to think, “Oh, that’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, just with Jheri curl activator spray.”
You’d be terribly wrong.
The Misdirection of Black Monday
The most appealing part of Black Monday’s premiere episode is undoubtedly its use of misdirection. The Wolf Of Wall Street is fundamentally based on one character, Jordan Belfort. Black Monday starts off as if it’s going to hone in on the singular character who caused the Wall Street crash, but eventually reveals that the crash itself is the main character of the show. Each episode is named after a number between 1 – 365, with the premiere titled “365,” the first day, and the first puzzle piece, leading to the collapse. If you blink at the wrong time you could miss out on a clue as to who and/or what caused the collapse; an enthralling mystery element that Wolf of Wall Street never had.
Mo also tricks viewers into thinking he’s blinded by his arrogance, when in fact he’s highly cerebral and sensitive. There’s an almost catatonic gaze that washes over his face when he sees his former love interest, Dawn, with her husband Spencer (Kadeem Hardison) and when he recollects the moments before he put his plan to snag Blair in motion without knowing it’ll work. Those brief moments of believable vulnerability are expertly acted by Cheadle and makes him a much more nuanced and relatable character than DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort.
The Partners in Crime
The cast of characters in the series’ premiere helps distinguish the show from being simply a Black Wolf of Wall Street as there is an almost intentional avoidance of any concentration on race. Mo may jokingly say he’s going to put the “brother” in Lehman Brothers and get his Jheri curls moistened in the middle of the office by his chauffeur, but that’s as deep as the premiere episode delves into race. The closest the episode came to addressing Mo being one of the few black faces in a sea of white men on Wall Street is when Mo’s hilariously enraged by a newspaper calling him “the Billy Ocean of Wall Street,” referencing the legendary Trinidadian-British R&B singer.
Dawn’s blackness is never addressed in the premiere, but her performance is one of the episode’s best. She’s the best trader in the Jammer Group, and while she is the most level headed of the group, she isn’t the moral compass keeping the frat house on course to always do the right thing. She’s mounting male coworkers to thrust into their imaginary breasts and squeezing her imaginary set of balls to intimidate. She smokes while she does cardio, likes to order “regular cocaine” during lunch, and has enough intriguing, and as of yet untapped, facets of her character to potentially carry entire episodes by herself. Which is more than we can say for the rest of the characters.
On paper, the episode and series are well cast with former nominees and winners of Screen Actor Guild Awards, Tony Awards, Golden Globes Awards. However, we don’t watch TV shows on paper. Jammer Group trader Keith (Paul Scheer), and all of his unfunny, crude one-liners and insecurities with balding is basically Scheer’s Andre Nowzick character from FX’s The League, just on Wall Street in the 1980s. Blair is built as not only the hotshot new kid on Wall Street with a game-changing algorithm but also as the most important character to possibly cause the eventual Black Monday crash. Yet, he is one of the most boring characters in the premiere due to how forgetful his parts are in comparison to powerhouses like Hall and Cheadle.
Black Monday is more than a black Wolf of Wall Street. It’s a thrilling coke binge we’ll all be strung out on weekly.