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TV Review: Black Monday Styles, Snorts, and Saunters Its Way Onto Television

on January 18, 2019, 4:35pm

The Pitch: It’s 1986, and Mo Monroe (Don Cheadle) is the coke-snorting, name-dropping, robo-butler-boasting head of his own rough-and-tumble Wall Street firm. Alongside his equally profane but effective lieutenants, Dawn (Regina Hall) and Keith (Paul Scheer), Mo is literally kicking in the doors of the New York financial scene, trying to use his ostentatious, unorthodox style to help his upstart firm keep up with the big boys. A chance encounter brings him face-to-face with Blair Pfaff (Andrew Rannells), a newly minted, squeaky-clean business school grad with an algorithm that could revolutionize the trading floor. What none of them know is that one year later, they’ll all be a part of the worst stock market crash in Wall Street history. That day of financial disaster, dubbed Black Monday, lends the title to this comedy series, which offers rapid-fire humor, an impeccable cast, and boundless style.

Cheadle in a Haystack: While the show’s cast is solid from top to bottom, Don Cheadle is the clear star in the series’ opening salvo, and he more than earns the spot. Cheadle fully inhabits Mo Monroe and his big-mouthed/foul-mouthed/motor-mouthed presence right from the jump. It would be easy for Mo to come off like a cartoon character with Black Monday‘s self-consciously flashy framing, but Cheadle manages to make him feel believable even in the series’ more ridiculous moments, and brings him back down to Earth when it wants to contrast his mercenary bravado with a little humanity.

It’s an admittedly odd comparison, but the closest touchstone for Mo Monroe is Deadwood’s Al Swearengen. Both men spit out directives and curse words with equal speed and pleasure. Both reign over their own little operations while trying to outflank the entrenched interests whose benign neglect is starting to wane. And both come from humble beginnings that taught them a guiltless, unflinching style that manages to draw you into both their devious schemes and moments of quiet vulnerability. It would be too much to say that Mo is a match for one of television’s all-time great characters, but he’s cut from the right mold, and Cheadle’s giving the role his all.

Gotta Get Back in Time: If you didn’t already know that this show takes place in the Eighties, Black Monday grabs you by the shoulders and blasts you with enough song cues, fashion choices, and Reagan-era cultural references to turn your family dog into Spuds MacKenzie. At times it verges on gratuitous, with every other word out of the characters’ mouths being either a curse or a shout-out to some piece of pop culture. But the show also captures the contemporary aesthetic perfectly, matching its funhouse mirror Trading Places vibe with the same grit, grain, and feel of a 1980s comedy flick. While the Nintendo-as-macguffin routine and reference-laden back-and-forths can become too cute after a while, the show commits whole-heartedly to the “Greed Is Good”-period texture it wants to evoke, and delivers that sensibility without reservation.

Ladies of the Eighties: Black Monday, like the real 1980s Wall Street, is definitely a boys’ club. Outside of the main cast, almost every secondary character in the show is a guy. The only exception is Blair’s girlfriend, Tiff (Casey Wilson), whose literal ball-busting, money-lusting Lysistrata approach doesn’t exactly do the show any favors on the representation front. But the attention, complexity, and importance the show places on Dawn helps balance that out. Regina Hall is a revelation in the role, and despite having to carry the day as the series’ only fully-formed female character, Black Monday doesn’t shy away from letting her trade barbs and blows with her co-stars or from the specific challenges a black woman would face when attempting to operate in that world. That’s an encouraging balm for the series’ otherwise unbalanced roster.

The Verdict: Black Monday is one of the most exciting new comedies to rev up on TV in some time. There are plenty of moments (at least in the three episodes made available for review) that make you wish the show would dial back on the constant 1980s references and the “vulgar for the sake of vulgarity” comic stylings. But despite those rougher edges, the show oozes with style and vision, bursts with a self-assured tone and sensibility right out of the gate, and quickly sketches out its central quartet of characters with enough personality, piss, and pathos to carry the show’s flair, humor, and plot. Cheadle is clearly the straw that stirs the drink, but each member of the main cast has enough layers to make the viewer want to see more.

The series’ initial pitch to the audience is driven by its central mysteries: what caused the crash, how were our heroes involved, and who’s dead by the time the bottom falls out? And a random sampling would provide instant snootfuls of the series’ throwback references, filthy dialogue, and Wolf of Wall Street-style antics. But setting aside the show’s late-episode twists and transgressive humor, there’s an unsuspecting depth beneath its Lamborghini limousine hood. Rarely has a comedy felt so stylish, so big, and so confident in what it wants to do so quickly, while still giving the audience enough substance and character to support it. The fickleness of television, like the market itself, means this enterprise could still end in ruin, but Black Monday’s initial public offering is more than enough to get us to buy in.

Rating: B

Where to Find It?: Black Monday premieres Sunday, January 20th at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.

Trailer:

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