HBO’s “Industry”: Finally, a Good TV Series About Investment Bankers and Traders?
It’s fair to say that I’m not a fan of Lena Dunham, the director of episode 1 of HBO’s new series Industry.
I watched a few episodes of Girls back in the day but quickly realized that I was not the “target audience” for that show.
So, after hearing about Industry – which follows the lives of recent university graduates working at “Pierpoint & Co.” and competing to win full-time offers there – I resisted watching it.
But the creators, Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, worked in finance, and there haven’t been that many series about the lives of bankers (Capital City?), so I eventually gave in and watched the first two episodes.
In short: it’s better than I expected, and it’s worth a watch if you’re interested in the finance industry – but it’s still not a great show (so far).
In other words, take that 5-star review in The Guardian with a grain of salt.
To frame this review, I’ll start with why it’s always difficult to turn the finance workplace into a compelling drama:
Emotional Stakes? What Are Emotions?
Finance-related TV shows and movies face three big challenges:
- The Story Details Are Boring – As I found when creating my own series, it’s very difficult to make a show about M&A deals and leveraged buyouts “interesting.” The intriguing bits are too abstract for the average person to understand, and it’s tough to use interesting visuals if all the scenes take place in the office.
- The Characters Are Not Sympathetic or Interesting – The senior executives in these shows tend to be psychopaths who also manage to be boring, and the juniors tend to be poorly defined or uninteresting to follow due to their lack of power.
- Making it “Accurate” or “Over the Top” Are Both Bad – If the series uses accurate lingo and workplace dynamics, normal people won’t understand it. But if it goes too far over the top (think: The Wolf of Wall Street), it might as well be in the fantasy genre.
As a result of these challenges, the best series and films are often adjacent to finance.
For example, Succession is an amazing show that’s closely related to private equity and investment banking, but it’s about a family business and the broken, crazy relationships inside a media conglomerate.
Relatively little takes place in the office, and even when it does, the scenes focus on interpersonal conflicts rather than “work.”
A movie like The Big Short deals with these challenges by following oddball characters who are working against the system rather than actively participating in it.
So, how well does Industry overcome these challenges?
They’re told that only half will receive permanent full-time offers after their placements are finished.
Some of the characters are typical banker types from posh upbringings, such as Robert (Harry Lawter), Yasmin (Marisa Abela), and Gus (David Jonsson).
Others, like Hari (Nabhaan Rizwan) and Harper (Myha’la Herrold), are from state schools or “non-targets.”
And yes, in the opening scene of episode 1, Harper uses the words “non-target” in a job interview to explain what SUNY Binghamton is.
Through the first two episodes, Harper is the most well-defined character and the one that’s closest to being the protagonist of the show.
As we find out later on, she doesn’t exactly have the qualifications required for the job (and it goes beyond being from a non-target) – so, can she thrive in the workplace while hiding her background from herself and others?
The other characters face different challenges; the ones in investment banking need to finish pitch books before the next client meeting and jockey for the best work.
Meanwhile, the ones in S&T need to boost their visibility, get to know clients, and start building their P&Ls.
At the end of episode 1, a shocking-but-also-heavily-foreshadowed event happens, which could reshape the entire workplace and turn into the major theme of the show.
Overall, the story is fine, and it sets up flawed characters with reasonable challenges to overcome.
But since the stakes are low (“win a job offer!”), the story’s success or failure is completely dependent on the characters and the audience’s investment in them.
What makes a great character?
My definition is partially based on Jill Chamberlain’s book The Nutshell Technique:
A great character has sharply defined characteristics and a tragic flaw, struggles to overcome that flaw, and either does so or fails to do so by the end of the story – in a surprising but logical way.
Failed characters tend to be bland or lack tragic flaws.
Failed stories are logical but boring or surprising but illogical.
I also like the framework that Brandon Sanderson has proposed: Likability, Proactivity, and Competence as “sliding scales.”
Protagonists often start as likable but are not proactive or competent.
As the story progresses, they become more proactive or competent as they “level up” and gain more confidence in their skills.
Anti-heroes, like Walter White, start as likable but not proactive or competent, and become unlikable but proactive and competent by the end.
Harper, the main character in Industry, starts as likable (non-target, non-wealthy background) and competent in episode 1, but she isn’t proactive, as she’s afraid to get in front of clients or challenge her superiors.
By the end of episode 1 and into episode 2, she becomes more proactive by finally pitching a trade idea to a client and standing up to an abusive boss – but also less likable, as we find out more about her background.
She comes up a bit short on the “tragic flaw” part because her flaw is not necessarily something that she can “fix” through her own efforts.
The other characters are less developed, though there is potential for all of them to move along these scales.
The major issue is that we don’t learn much about each character’s motivation or life outside work.
I get that this is a meta-commentary on the nature of finance jobs: no one has a “life outside work,” and few people know why they’re working in the industry besides “money.”
But I don’t think it works dramatically; we need some sense of why the characters want to work in this industry so badly.
Are they doing this to impress their friends? Are they doing it to earn enough money to keep their family afloat? Are they doing it to avoid a bad situation at home? Are they compensating for previous failures or setbacks?
There are some hints of these motivations, but nothing fleshed out so far.
Still, the characters are interesting enough that I want to see where the story goes.
The second episode covered more of each character’s personal life, and I hope we see more of that.
Directing, Editing, Cinematography, Music, and More
On a technical level, Industry is quite good.
It’s well shot and edited, and much of the music is techno or techno-like, which is probably fitting for the juxtaposed clubbing/drinking scenes and all-nighters in the office.
Despite the office environment, they create some interesting visuals by going outside of work and showing interactions at home, pubs and bars, and client dinners.
I watch TV series for the stories and characters, not the technical details – which tend to be good in any series with a substantial budget – so I don’t have much to say here.
Will Industry Teach You Anything About Investment Banking or Sales & Trading?
Ironically, you might have trouble following the series if you don’t already know a fair amount about the finance industry.
They throw around lingo like “IBD” and “CPS” (Cross-Product Sales) without explaining much, and I have no idea how normal people can follow everything.
But the lingo and on-the-job details feel a bit schizophrenic: one minute, something realistic happens, and the next minute, something implausible happens.
I took several pages of notes, but here are two quick examples:
IB Pitch Book Production: In one sequence, Hari (the state school grad in IB) is frantically working on a pitch book to finish it before a client meeting in the morning (realistic).
He obsesses over the proper alignment on a “Team” slide, but then he uses a piece of paper to check the alignment rather than the gridlines and drawing guides built into PowerPoint (WTF?).
Then, the effort ends up being a waste as the client’s flight is delayed, and the meeting is postponed (realistic).
Sales & Trading Pitch Ideas: In another segment, Harper gets invited to a client dinner in her first week on the job as a new grad in the sales division (completely unrealistic).
She then stays silent for most of the dinner meeting (realistic).
But at the end, she gathers the courage to pitch a trade idea: an option on 10-year U.S. Treasury yields rising to 4% because “the U.S. and China will get into a war in the South China Sea, and China is the biggest holder of Treasuries.”
I don’t know where to begin with this one, but let’s just say that I could think of more plausible reasons why 10-year yields might rise to 4%.
Back at the office, they eventually price this trade for the client, after objections from one of the traders, so we move back into “reality” in terms of execution, but not concept.
Overall, the investment banking side is more accurate than the sales & trading one because it reflects that new Analysts work all day and night and do not interact much with clients.
The series offers a good flavor of the environment and atmosphere, but you should not interpret it literally – especially not the S&T happenings.
Strengths, Weaknesses, and Final Thoughts
Industry was better than I expected, but not what I would call a great show.
And I have no idea how normal people with limited knowledge of finance will understand everything.
Returning to the three key challenges at the top, here’s how the show stacks up:
- Story Details – The “Who will get a job offer?” and “Will the bank discover this person’s dark secrets?” angles make the story details more engaging; they did a decent job here.
- The Characters – The main character, Harper, has enough background to be an interesting-but-flawed protagonist, but the others are not yet properly developed.
- Accuracy / Fantasy – It leans toward accuracy on the IB side but is more of a fantasy for the new grads in sales & trading.
It’s worth watching if you’re into finance, but you probably won’t learn that much if you’ve read this site extensively.
Oh, and there’s also male and female nudity, sex scenes, drug use, offensive language, etc., so if any of that bothers you, the show may not be for you.
Honestly, if you want a finance-related series, Succession is a much better show that also manages to be more understandable for the average person.
I think it might be impossible to create a great show about the work lives of bankers and traders because of the challenges above.
But one day, we might see a series that proves me wrong.
I don’t think that series is Industry – at least not yet – but I am willing to watch and see how it develops over the season.
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