'Industry': TV Review

Industry Still
Amanda Searle/HBO
More steamy escapism than stimulating drama, so far.

HBO's spicy new drama, set against the backdrop of London's financial sector, has a pilot directed by Lena Dunham.

March 2020 was a cultural inflection point for the world, and TV was no exception. We're seeing a greater divide between shows produced post-COVID that are, perhaps, too timely (like Netflix's Social Distance and NBC's Connecting…) — and shows produced pre-COVID that might have been timely when they were shot, but now feel as current as a cave painting (like Fox's NEXT).

Created by Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, HBO's Industry was designed as an almost voyeuristic, but still realistic, look at the machinations at a London investment firm, complete with insider tidbits aplenty. Instead it plays as a COVID-free fantasy about a bunch of young people who work on a much-too-crowded trading floor and spend their evenings at much-too-crowded, sweaty nightclubs. Nobody sleeps. Nobody has time for hygiene. Everybody is hooking up all over the place. There's an abiding sympathy for characters trying to afford mind-boggling rents in Notting Hill. Throw in a relentless use of unexplained financial jargon and watching Industry is like crash-landing on a distant planet. It's borderline science fiction, which is odd since the first episode was directed by Lena Dunham, whose aesthetic and narrative M.O. tends to be more along the lines of "chaotic-realistic."

You know what's odder still? This disconnect probably works to the show's benefit. The more seriously you take Industry, the less satisfying it's bound to feel. The more you can detach it from reality and accept that it's essentially a series about twentysomething sexcapades with a "first job" backdrop — like a kinkier version of Freeform's The Bold Type — in which characters occasionally blather about currency exchanges and shorting stocks, the less distracted you'll be by the fact that you're basically beholding an expensive London-set Petri dish.

Our main characters are graduate trainees at London's Pierpoint & Co, "the world's preeminent financial services institution." It's a program designed to milk them for their youth and vitality — a program that only half of them will complete, according to Ken Leung's Eric Tso, a senior advisor of sorts. Providing point-of-entry innocence is Harper (Myha'la Herrold), a scrappy American whose academic credentials seem sketchy to the snooty pool of Eton/Oxford/Cambridge grads. Her British contemporaries include Yasmin (Marisa Abela), validation-starved and more monied than Harper, Robert (Harry Lawtey), who really can't be described as anything other than a "fuckboi," and Hari (Nabhaan Rizwan), who begins the series living at his desk and popping pep pills, which is never a good sign.

In the office, the newbies experience sexism, racism and homophobia, as well as relentless backstabbing and double-dealing. Outside of the office, they let off steam with meaningless sex and manipulative mind games, and strive to cover up secrets from their pasts, which are myriad. I'm not sure there's a single character in Industry who isn't on the brink of physical or emotional collapse, yet they're all still up for light BDSM, public boinking and anonymous app-based encounters — almost all preceded or followed by smoking something, popping something else or imbibing several somethings.

If you asked me to explain anything that's happening at Pierpoint & Co, I'd shrug. The fourth of four episodes made available to critics finds Harper making a mess of some deal and spending nearly a full hour trying to dig out of her mess, naturally making a bigger mess as she goes along. But I couldn't begin to detail the mistake or any of Harper's potential solutions.

It isn't just the sheer volume of mumbo-jumbo that's impenetrable. Down and Kay, in their first series as creators, rush through the hierarchy and structure at Pierpoint, leaving it for viewers to figure out the reporting structure. There are several characters who, for long stretches, border on interchangeable, and I lost track of who was screwing whom — which almost surely was the point, since the characters are all either screwing each other or one degree of separation from screwing each other. None of the excesses is all that gratifying, which I think is what distinguishes Industry from the '80s lifestyle porn of somebody like novelist Martin Amis, who otherwise would surely feel like an inspiration here.

It's possible to invest in the zipless hijinks of Industry because even if you don't care about the specifics of what anybody is doing — and even when the series becomes issue-oriented in its catastrophes, it never feels all that perceptive — you believe the characters care. And that's always the best way for a show to build stakes when the story is set in an insular and not always familiar environment. So even if it isn't clear if Harper or Yasmin or Robert or Hari are good at what they're doing or mean well toward their peers, Rizwan and Lawtey, and especially Herrold and Abela, sell the toll this is taking on them. Given the relative inexperience of the young cast, Dunham deserves some credit for initially grounding their performances, even if her creative capacity on the show appears to be limited to just the single episode behind the camera.

Industry actually has a strong supporting cast of established actors who pop up sometimes in the most marginal of roles, leaving you to wait for their returns; Sarah Parrish (Broadchurch) and Andrew Buchan (The Crown) are quite overqualified for "client" cameos. Leung has a meatier part as a well-intentioned, amply flawed mentor and gets to give several inspirational speeches very much in the "Greed is good!" vein.

Perhaps, like any good science fiction story, Industry will engage in more world-building as the first season moves along. And maybe if the creators are able to give the context some real meaning, Industry will evolve beyond tawdry, infectious fun into something more HBO-appropriate, as opposed to "Too spicy for Freeform, not spicy enough for Starz." The upside feels like a YA version of Succession.

Stars: Myha’la Herrold, Marisa Abela, Harry Lawtey, David Jonsson, Nabhaan Rizwan, Freya Mavor, Will Tudor, Conor MacNeill, Ken Leung

Creators: Mickey Down and Konrad Kay

Airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, starting November 9.