Finance TV Shows in 2019: The Full Round-Up
A few short years ago, the landscape of “finance tv shows” consisted of a bottomless black hole.
That black hole resembled the exit opportunities available to mid-level investment bankers, but was even less entertaining.
But the TV landscape changes quickly, and in the past year alone, there have been at least three new or continuing shows set in the finance industry.
Here’s my mini-review for each one – but first, a word about the challenges that all finance TV shows face:
Finance TV Shows: Got Emotional Stakes?
Back when we were thinking about producing Season 2 of Cost of Capital, I met with a writer who had worked on Law & Order to brainstorm story ideas.
He explained why the producers on that show often avoided financial stories:
“You’re doing something challenging here. On Law & Order, they tried to avoid stories with purely financial goals/desires because it was too difficult to establish the emotional stakes. And it’s hard to make people on either side of a conflict about money sympathetic.”
Most books, shows, and movies attempt to solve this problem with one of the following:
- Make the protagonist a “fish out of water” who comes from modest means and is trying to break into the world of finance (e.g., the original Wall Street).
- Make the story about oddballs and quirky characters who have their own problems and who then try to take down the system (e.g., The Big Short).
- Take a character from privilege/wealth, remove the character’s advantages, put him in a different setting, and see what happens (e.g., Trading Places).
- Or, go the “drugs and hookers” route and film a bunch of crazy people stealing money and doing cocaine all the time (e.g., The Wolf of Wall Street and Boiler Room).
These techniques help, but if a show or movie is overly reliant on them, they can come across as clichés.
In light of these challenges, I judge finance TV shows based on:
- Characters: Do I care about the characters? Are there stakes beyond “make more money”? If the characters are not likable, are they at least interesting (ex: Tony Soprano)?
- Story: Is the story surprising but logical? If the story is strictly “logical,” it’s often boring, and if it’s too “surprising,” it often has glaring plot holes that take you out of the world. The best stories surprise you initially but are obvious in hindsight.
- Learning: Do I learn something new about the finance industry by watching? Or does the show at least present well-worn themes through a new lens?
And now to the mini-reviews:
Finance TV Shows: Billions (Seasons 1 – 3)
I reviewed Season 1 of Billions a few years ago, and I’m happy to say that the show has improved a lot since then.
If you haven’t seen it, Billions is about a hedge find titan, Bobby Axelrod (played by Damian Lewis), and an up-and-coming U.S. Attorney, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), who goes after him for insider trading.
Of course, the U.S. Attorney’s wife also happens to be a “performance coach” at Axelrod’s hedge fund (Axe Capital), which creates the initial conflict.
Season 1 of the show was OK, but came up short in the “Characters” department.
Chuck Rhoades is a spoiled rich kid who irks everyone he meets, and Bobby Axelrod is a billionaire who made his fortune through shady-to-illegal activities.
Not only were they both unsympathetic, but they also weren’t that interesting.
Season 2 and 3 improved upon this premise by fleshing out the main characters and also by introducing an up-and-comer in the hedge fund world (Taylor Mason) who has a talent for investing but a naivete about the business.
I won’t spoil story details here, but by the end of Season 2, one character makes a “sacrifice” that makes him/her more sympathetic and adds depth by forcing him/her to make a tough choice.
By the end of Season 3, another character makes a major decision about how to deal with an “enemy” that shows this character is flawed, but still has some redemptive qualities.
Meanwhile, the series resists the urge to play out the same situations and conflicts over and over again – unlike police or medical procedurals.
Instead, character relationships keep shifting as allies become enemies and frenemies become friends… or regress to enemies.
That said, Billions still does a few things that drive me crazy:
- Dialogue filled with elaborate metaphors, as if people constantly reference Greek mythology or Yankees infielders from the 1978 World Series when speaking to friends.
- Stories that require a high suspension of disbelief (think: “Look at this clever strategy I just used to win – but I had to know in advance that Events A, B, and C would happen for it to work”). They’re surprising, but the logic is sometimes questionable.
- Stereotypical characters and social commentary. The Attorney General, “Jock” Jeffcoat, is particularly bad on this count. A gun-toting conservative from Texas who uses dead coyotes to make points to his subordinates… right.
Season 4 starts on March 17th, and I’m looking forward to it.
I might even make a drinking game out of it and take a shot every time a character makes an obscure cultural reference.
Finance TV Shows: Succession (Season 1)
Succession came out of nowhere and truly surprised me.
You could describe it as “Game of Thrones meets modern corporate America.”
The series is about the Roy family, owners of a global media conglomerate (Waystar Royco) who fight for control of the company when the founder and family patriarch, Logan Roy, runs into health issues.
The Roys are inspired by real-life media-conglomerate families like the Murdochs, Redstones, Hearsts, and Maxwells.
Logan Roy is a cutthroat and competent executive, while his kids are… not so competent.
One is a “former” drug addict, one has the attention span of a 5-year-old on a sugar high, one is a consultant to “professional liars” (i.e., politicians), and one lives as a man-child on a ranch in New Mexico and dreams of starting a podcast on Napoleonic history.
The finance industry comes into the story in a big way because a private equity firm gets involved with the succession struggle and attempts to make a power grab, starting with the acquisition of a minority stake in Waystar Royco.
Amid this struggle, there are affairs, backstabbing, secret plotting, and even a Bernie Sanders-like politician who goes after the Logan family.
When I heard the premise for Succession, I was extremely skeptical.
“Oh, great,” I thought, “yet another show about unlikeable people betraying each other. After The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones, do we need more of this?”
But the answer turned out to be “yes” because I ended up really, really liking the show.
It works because it’s funny; it’s more of a black comedy than a pure drama, with equal parts satire and serious conflict.
Also, even though the characters are initially unlikable, they become more likable and interesting over time as the show demonstrates that wealth and power do not resolve fundamental human issues.
Watching the episodes, Tolstoy’s famous line from Anna Karenina came to mind:
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Despite their wealth, the Roys are just another unhappy family – and each episode reveals a new dysfunction that makes them unhappy in a different way.
On the negative side, I’d point to:
- Story Leaps – There were a few corporate maneuvers (think: hidden loans, giant scandals covered up over decades, etc.) that tugged my “suspension of disbelief” strings.
- Dreariness – The comedic aspects did not come through quite as strongly in the first few episodes, and I kept thinking, “OK, can we please get one sympathetic character… just one, please.”
But, overall, I was pleasantly surprised, and I’m looking forward to Season 2.
Finance TV Shows: Black Monday (Season 1 in progress)
Black Monday, a new Showtime series that’s in the middle of its first season as I write this, officially takes us from “black comedy” to straight “comedy.”
This one stars Don Cheadle as Maurice Monroe, or “Mo the Marauder,” who heads a prop trading firm called “The Jammer Group” in the 1980s.
The series follows the traders at this firm, who were somehow responsible for Black Monday in October 1987, when stock markets around the world crashed by 20%+ in a single day.
Along with Don Cheadle are Andrew Rannells as Blair Pfaff, a fresh grad from Wharton who has developed an amazing trading algorithm and is leveraging it to win job offers, and Regina Hall as Dawn Darcy, the top trader at the Jammer Group.
Black Monday is a fun, completely over-the-top portrayal of the 1980s on Wall Street.
If The Wolf of Wall Street were made into a TV series, it would resemble this show.
It’s not at all surprising that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg directed the pilot, as it’s a tonal match for many of their films.
If you’re easily offended by sexist, boorish, and completely ridiculous behavior and comments, you should not watch this show; it’s set 30 years before the #MeToo movement, and it feels more like 300 years before.
You’re unlikely to learn much about finance by watching this one, but you will learn about the atmosphere of the industry in the 1980s.
That said, I still enjoyed the six episodes of Black Monday I’ve seen so far.
In a comedy, you can get away with almost anything as long as the audience laughs, which explains this show’s appeal.
There doesn’t appear to be much substance at first, but that changes a few episodes in as the series begins to address issues like the glass ceiling, the underrepresentation of women, and the computerized and automated trading that would eventually disrupt the whole industry.
My favorite quote is spoken by Maurice to Blair, as he explains why the fresh grad lost $50,000 trading on his first day:
“Your little algorithm doesn’t work so well against real traders, huh? Pro-tip kid – computers, don’t make trades, okay? Men do.”
If only he could steal a DeLorean time machine from another 1980s movie and see what trading is like today.
Finance TV Shows: Top-Tier Television?
It’s difficult to compare these shows because they’re all quite different, despite sharing topics and themes.
And, not to be a TV snob, but I wouldn’t consider any of them to be “top-tier series” – i.e., do not go in expecting The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Leftovers, etc.
But they’re all enjoyable shows that improve from start to finish.
If you want an authentic flavor of the hedge fund world and you don’t mind ridiculous dialogue, check out Billions.
If you want a black comedy about a dysfunctional family that’s entertaining but sometimes a bit too dreary, check out Succession.
And if you fantasize about doing cocaine at the office and buying expensive cars, start binging Black Monday.
Finance TV shows have come a long way, and they’re not nearly as bleak as exit opportunities for mid-level bankers anymore.
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