'Black Monday': TV Review
Starring Don Cheadle, Andrew Rannells and Regina Hall, Showtime's take on 1980s Wall Street excess is tonally erratic and jarringly unfunny.
It's hard to imagine that a half-hour comedy set on Wall Street with Don Cheadle and Andrew Rannells in major parts could go off the rails so quickly and spectacularly, but Showtime's latest, Black Monday, does just that. And that's even before you factor in Regina Hall giving arguably the best performance in the bunch.
Which means that if you're looking for a culprit here, you should circle back — as is often the case — to the writing. And in this instance, probably the overall direction and tone of the series, too.
Written by Jordan Cahan and David Caspe and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the pilot of Black Monday is set in the cocaine-fueled days of late '80s Wall Street and, specifically, on Oct. 19, 1987, when the biggest crash of them all hit.
Black Monday posits that nobody knew what, or who, brought on the crash — "until now." See, that's supposed to be the first joke. It's a series that's going to look back at how it all happened and, presumably, pin it either Cheadle or Rannells (if you make it all the way to the reveal, whenever that may be, send up a flare for those of us who moved quickly onward to other offerings).
Cheadle plays Maurice "Mo" Monroe, who runs his own trading company called The Jammer Group, with Dawn (Hall) as his top broker in an office filled with a typically colorful rag-tag group of traders who, in the course of the three episodes Showtime gave for review, are never once believable (but at least one of them takes out his dick and repeatedly slaps it on the shoulder of Rannells' character, Blair Pfaff, a newbie trader, so there's that).
The pilot is a gigantic hot mess of tonally clashing humor that doesn't work. The series is trying to figure out if Mo's outrageousness is the course it should follow or perhaps Blair's innocence (he's got an algorithm that will allegedly beat the street once he hones it), or maybe even Dawn, the conscience of the trading firm and the pivot point of the series when it decides it wants to be serious or deep.
What it ends up deciding, at least temporarily, is to create a kind of long con where, at the end of the first episode, it's revealed that all the dubious plot machinations thus far have been part of another brilliant master plan from Mo, even though none of it is believable or plausible. Credit episode two for realizing this and spending the first chunk of time having Dawn tell Mo that everything that happened in the first episode was implausible and stupid (which at the time seems like the perfect atonement) and then Mo explains that it actually does make sense because he had everything covered. This, too, is not really believable, but it's certainly convenient, and that's what's offered.
See, Mo's role is to be all about excess. In one scene he says, "I never even open a menu, I just order the most expensive shit. It keeps it more exciting." But we are to believe that impulsive Mo is playing a really brilliant long con (until we find out it's really not that brilliant). This may be a hint for some viewers that it might be time to bail. And while the latter part of the second episode shows some improvement and gives a faint whiff of hope that there's something worth waiting to develop in Black Monday, the third episode tears it all to pieces and sends you desperately seeking something more coherent and funny.
What's clear through three episodes is that Black Monday is a black hole of sorts, and given how much great programming exists outside of black tunnels, viewers will have to ask themselves how much time they have to see if this show can turn it around. Again, the writing isn't helping. There's an early scene where a video game is being played. The capper to the scene is one person realizing he heard the name of the video game wrong: "Oh, 'Duck Hunt.' I thought it was 'Da Cunt.' This makes a lot more sense."
Rannells' character, talking about Cheadle's character, says this to his wife: "You don't really make Mo do stuff. He more sorta does stuff to you. Like my gymnastics team doctor." If those sound like network jokes with a little more cable leeway but still with a lame punch line, well, they are.
The problem (one of many) is that creators Cahan (My Best Friend's Girl) and Caspe (Happy Endings) can't seem to agree on the tone. Do they let Cheadle riff and go wild as the Wall Street outsider (which he can do easily, and could do more entertainingly if he had better material)? Or do they want there to be some silly slapstick (yes, that, weirdly) and over-the-top-ness from Rannells and Casey Wilson (who plays his annoying wife), channeling the rapid-fire cleverness of Caspe's Happy Endings? Or — deep breath — do they want it to be a more serious look at Hall's moral conscience character?
They clearly can't decide, and it doesn't work when all those options are mashed together. Toss in the wince-inducing bro-tastic jocularity of the rest of the ensemble (including Paul Scheer, Horatio Sanz and Yassir Lester as other traders at the firm) and you realize that's a lot of talent wasted working on something that seems thrown together, unstructured and ill-advised.
Cast: Don Cheadle, Andrew Rannells, Regina Hall, Paul Scheer, Horatio Sanz, Casey Wilson, Yassir Lester, Kadeem Hardison
Created by: David Caspe, Jordan Cahan
Directed by: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Premieres: Sunday, Jan. 20, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)