We all have that one show we become evangelists for.
That show is “must see” TV for you, but you’re incredulous that it somehow winds up in the “I’ll get to it when I get to it” wing of so many other people’s queues.
Right now, that show for me is Black Monday.
When the show premiered last year on Showtime, critics were a bit torn. Season one currently has a 56% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with reviews basically calling it unfocused and not the cathartic takedown of Wall Street that they may have been expecting.
But that’s exactly why I loved it.
With the very real stock market crash of 1987 (aka Black Monday) as its backdrop, the show paints a fictional story of the people and motives who caused it, namely Mo Monroe (Don Cheadle) and his trading firm the Jammer Group. What starts as a get-rich-quick scheme devolves into a shell game of figuring out who’s screwing over whom.
Although the web of secret motives (and secret lives) can make season one seem a bit formless, half the fun of the show is watching how all the loose threads are eventually woven together—and they do, indeed, come together. And no, this isn’t a takedown of the people in power playing fast and loose with innocent lives, because these aren’t your typical people in power on Wall Street. The Jammer Group is run by Mo, a black man; Dawn (Regina Hall), a black woman; and Blair and Keith (Andrew Rannells and Paul Scheer), both closeted gay men.
To be sure, they all make terrible and morally bankrupt decisions. However, there are deeper motives to their actions that are intrinsically linked to their marginalization. It’s not right, but it’s far more emotionally compelling than just “greed is good.”
Season one ended on a bit of a cliffhanger with Mo going on the run, and questions abound as to how the Jammer Group would benefit from the crash they purposefully caused that would’ve made me tune in regardless. However, now that we’re halfway through season two, I can confidently say this is my favorite show on television right now.
Here’s why I think it should become yours, too.
It’s got an epic bottle episode
Whether a pure artistic decision or a budgetary one, bottle episodes make great television—if done correctly. With the action focused on a limited set of characters in a confined setting, the normal arc of the series has time to stretch, and what writers choose to fill that extra time can yield impactful results.
Case in point, season two’s third episode: “Idiot Inside.”
The majority of the episode takes place in a bank where Mo and Keith are looking to make a deal with the top drug cartel in Miami. As the tension elevates in the back room where negotiations are taking place, there’s also an increasing sense of dread in the lobby out front. We’re introduced to several nonregular characters who, as the episode progresses, aren’t who or what they seem, in both good and terrible ways. The episode ends with a crucial turning point in Mo and Keith’s relationship—not to mention an epic shootout. “Idiot Inside” makes perfect use of the isolated setting to advance the principal story while simultaneously taking a break from it too. The whole episode was like a mashup of Black Monday, Scarface, and Dog Day Afternoon in the best possible way.
It’s the dark farce you didn’t know you needed
The best way to describe Black Monday is a dark farce. No matter how outlandish the scenario or dialogue might be, there’s always moments of grounded clarity that balance out the overall tone of the show: the flashbacks to Mo’s days as a Black Panther (and the betrayal that set him on the path we see him on now), Mo and Dawn’s tumultuous relationship rooted in her being undervalued as a woman, Keith coming to terms with his sexuality, and so forth. Having laid that solid groundwork with its characters, season two earned the right to dial up the farce just a bit without going completely off the rails, as in that musical number in episode five, “Violent Crooks and Cooks of Books.”
After the bank deal goes south, Keith is hauled off to prison. The show could’ve played it straight, a few fish-out-of-water jokes here, maybe a dropped-the-bar-of-soap joke there. But the writers took the opportunity to make a statement on white-collar crimes and the racial disparity in punishment with a barbershop-quartet-style number welcoming Keith to the white (collar) side of prison.
To me, this is camp and farce done right: It fits within the heightened world the show created for itself while drilling issues such as Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs” and all the racial biases associated with it.
The dawn of Dawn
In season one, Black Monday solidly revolves around Mo. A compelling character, to be sure. But once he flees at the end of the finale, season two picks up with a renewed focus on Dawn, who is truly the heart (and brains) of the show. Her storyline best exemplifies what I mentioned earlier: Atypical power players playing the same crooked game as everyone else.
But unlike Mo and Blair, who basically turn into two more boys in the boys club, Dawn, for better or worse, was never blindsided by the excesses that access can bring. That gender and racial inequality is what keeps her grounded and focused enough to become the true architect of the plan that caused Black Monday in season one (even through Blair gets credit for it). In season two, we get a closer look at how that lack of valuation motivates her further—even to the point of an ethical crisis within her own community.
Much like how The Leftovers became less about Kevin (Justin Theroux) and more about Nora (Carrie Coon)—yet another show I have evangelized and will always evangelize—Black Monday season two gives the much-deserved spotlight to the show’s most empathic character as she claws and manipulates her way past the boys to get what’s hers.