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‘Industry’ Mixes Business With Pleasure, but the Latter Wins Out

HBO’s latest is ‘Skins’ but for the banking world

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

In 2014, journalist Kevin Roose published a book titled Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits. Over the course of three years, Roose followed a group of eight 20-somethings through their time in the trenches of high finance. Young, hungry, and worked to the bone, his subjects strain to impress their demanding bosses, stand out from the crowd, and generally survive—too exhausted to do anything but their job, let alone contemplate the ethics of it. Reviewing Young Money for The New York Times, progressive news anchor Chris Hayes deemed this setup “a boot camp that will reliably turn normal but ambitious people into broken sociopaths.” But it’s also a decent template for a TV show.

Attend a certain kind of educational institution and you’ll inevitably find yourself locked into the tractor beam of recruitment from finance or its close cousins in consulting and tech. (Ironically, the very economic crisis these institutions helped cause has only increased their appeal to well-credentialed but otherwise aimless youth: a steady, well-paid gig in an ever-more-unsteady world.) That was certainly the experience of Industry cocreators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, who went into investment banking after graduating from Oxford and before breaking into entertainment. Industry, a coproduction between the BBC and HBO, blends Down and Kay’s hard-won knowledge of detail with a more standard TV formula—an evolution from a first draft that was largely “10-page scenes of people called Mickey and Konrad talking about how much they didn’t like their jobs.”

Industry is the latest in a series of successful collaborations between HBO and its UK counterparts. This summer saw the runaway success of I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s shapeshifting exploration of sex, consent, and artistic growth; last year, Russell T. Davies’s Years and Years perfectly captured the frog-in-boiling-water feeling of living through history, one cataclysm at a time. Industry, somewhat uniquely, wears its international nature on its sleeve. The show is set at a fictional bank in London and shot in Wales (and those outside the U.K. will benefit from dialect-deciphering subtitles critics sadly don’t have access to in advance). But much of its cast is American, including Myha’la Herrold as Harper Stern, the scrappy ingenue who serves as de facto lead. And so is the pilot director, a little-known up-and-comer by the name of Lena Dunham.

It’s easy to see what drew Dunham to the material. From Tiny Furniture to Girls, her specialty is young women acting badly as they stumble their way into some semblance of adulthood; as she enters her post-Girls career, an episode of a foreign show in which she doesn’t star represents an expansion of her oeuvre, though more in structure than substance. What Harper lacks in fancy degrees—she’s a SUNY Binghamton grad in a sea of Oxbridge alums, and even that line of her résumé may be fudged—she makes up for in skill, resourcefulness, and a trauma-induced drive to succeed. “I think mediocrity is too well-hidden by parents who hire private tutors,” she tells her interviewer and soon-to-be-mentor Eric (Ken Leung). “I’m here on my own.” She’s also a 22-year-old in a pressure cooker, so being “here” involves a lot of ill-advised substances and sexual escapades.

Per industry standard, Harper gets onboarded with a clutch of equally ambitious peers. Per TV standard, the eight-episode season leads up to a climactic crucible: RiF, or Reduction in Force—a mass purge at the six-month mark in which half the grad class earns permanent jobs and the remaining half are left to find employment elsewhere. Harper’s comrades and competitors include Yasmin (Marisa Abela), the already-affluent child of a publishing magnate; Gus (David Jonsson), an avowed Thatcherite whose smug satisfaction grates on his fellow plebes; and Hari (Nabhaan Rizwan), a fellow state-school grad desperate to impress with performative misery.

Wound up with stress and let loose on the trading floor, the neophytes bounce off of one another like caffeinated pinballs. Dissatisfied with her boyfriend and disempowered at work, Yasmin indulges in a kinky flirtation with a smitten colleague. Gus enters a same-sex affair with a straight-presenting superior. Drugs are the office’s lifeblood, powering employees through 16-hour days and ensuring they don’t waste the remaining eight on wasteful luxuries like sleep. Industry’s characters talk like extras from Billions, hyping up shorts and speaking in acronyms like RiF (pronounced “riff”) or “FX” (foreign exchange). But in their after-hours exploits, they act like the newest generation of Skins—or Euphoria, HBO’s initial foray into highbrow YA. One of Harper’s higher-ups is even played by Freya Mavor, best known as Minnie from Skins Series 5 and 6.

Industry can be refreshing in its rare matchup of young hedonists with a professional setting that actually explains their lifestyle. On another show, the same actors could easily be cast as suspiciously mature high school students or sexy creatives who somehow occupy seven-figure homes. The sight of teenagers snorting lines requires some suspension of disbelief; on Industry, the debauchery checks out. There’s an explicit tradeoff at play with these characters, for whom opulence comes at a spiritual cost. Upon meeting a media entrepreneur at a dinner party, one financier grimaces: “The idea of somebody actually making money for doing something they love fills me with pain.”

There is, however, a gap between the soapy fun of Industry’s interpersonal drama and the subtlety of its social critique. Kay and Downs have promised their big-picture themes will ramp up over the course of the season, and there are already hints in the four episodes shared with critics. In the style of Adam McKay’s work on Succession and The Big Short, the camerawork is frenetic and unsteady, especially in the trading floor scenes. Grads are saturated with skin-crawling motivational statements like “Enrich your client. Enrich us. Enrich yourselves.” Most intriguingly, Industry’s workplace is superficially diverse, headed up by a South Asian woman and populated by Black, queer, and female recruits. (Industry’s own diversity of casting is more meaningful.) But despite the vague noises made about a cultural shift after one grad gets pushed to the edge, the machine grinds on in service of the great god of capital. Photoshopped brochures put a pretty face on a fundamentally ugly pursuit.

As subtle as these observations are, they’re inevitably drowned out by bathroom hookups and small-time schemes. Harper, we’re told, once wrote a paper on the moral case for capitalism. She doesn’t come off as some Randian ideologue, though—just a kid from a rough-and-tumble background trying desperately for a foothold in the ruling class. That’s how the system works, of course: keep people so focused on their individual self-interest and short-term survival they don’t bother to ask the bigger questions. Industry wisely focuses on the bottom tier over the corner office, the better to find conflict and group solidarity. But by doing this, it runs the same risk as its subjects when it comes to losing sight of the larger picture. Maybe that’s the point. Why look at the forest of capitalism when there are dead trees you can turn into cash?