HBO dramas tend to be cool. It’s difficult to say from what exactly this coolness derives. ‘Cool’ has always been an inexact science. But, unscientifically, shows like True Detective, The Sopranos, Big Little Lies, I May Destroy You, Succession and Chernobyl feel cool. This elusive cool factor is a goldmine for TV producers. If a show feels cool, people will watch it, and tell their friends they’re watching it.
Industry is one of HBO’s latest offerings. It follows a group of grads at an investment bank, Pierpoint & Co, who are hoping to prove their worth and be made permanent at the firm. They have a great deal of sex and take a lot of drugs along the way, and generally treat each other like shit. Industry is not a bad show. It’s probably even a good show by several metrics. The writing, by two ex-bankers, is tight. It’s nicely shot. The performances are strong across the board, and the explorations of the interplay between class, race, and gender in this traditionally masculine and privileged world are admirable. It makes direct and sustained reference to the banking sector’s flimsy gestures at workplace equality and mental health provision.
There’s the odd really good joke in it, and some of the sex scenes are hot. Generally, people seemed to like it a lot, and I began to feel curious about how that could be, because it seemed obvious that Industry has a strange and glaring flaw.
It is not cool.
Do not misunderstand me: I enjoy a lot of uncool things. I took up Dungeons and Dragons this year. What I objected to on a gut level was the fact that Industry was being marketed, dressed up and responded to as something cool.
There is one brief nod to the fact that all the corporate merry-making is just not as cool as the people partaking in it seem to think it is. In a Christmas party scene, one of the bankers blows cocaine up the arsehole of another banker crouched on all fours on one of the boardroom tables, and afterwards the blower acknowledges that ‘it’s not as glamorous as when Leo did it’.
But the indietronica and TikTok hip-hop soundtrack, the edgy greying of the show’s colour palette, the zingers being slung across the office floor, the pilot being directed by Lena Dunham all undercut any attempt at implying that we are not supposed to think what we are seeing is cool. It is given cool framing.
It has invited comparisons to Skins, which however queasy it makes us now was the height of cool in its day, and beloved Cool Show™ Succession. What does Succession, which is also about abhorrent rich people treating each other badly, have that makes it cool, that Industry doesn’t have? Succession is very funny, which Industry generally isn’t, but that doesn’t go all the way to answering the question. I could tie myself in knots here trying to define ‘cool’, but I’m not going to, because you know what I’m talking about. Investment banking is not cool. Living rent-free in your mother’s basement in Notting Hill, as one of the characters does, is not cool. Summoning triple-surged Ubers with a devil may care attitude while you dust high-quality cocaine off your nose is not cool. The sex lives of Old Etonians are not cool.
Because the primary interest of most bankers is making money (and the show finds it difficult to deny that fact) it makes engaging with the characters challenging. Why should we care if they don’t get made permanent at this firm? Why are they here? Why did they want to be bankers? The implied answer for all the characters is ‘to make loads of money whilst wearing a collared shirt’ and to do so in an industry that quite literally and remorselessly kills one of their friends.
This is a fundamentally uncool goal. You would find it impossible to scroll through the Forbes 30 Under-30 Finance list and identify one person who looks even halfway cool. Not that they would care. I daresay there’s a threshold over which having untold riches means you stop caring about whether or not other people find you cool. But it means these people don’t make appropriate fodder for a cool television show.
You can see why they put so much sex and drugs in it, and it’s not because bankers really are behaving like this all day long. I’m sure people do take cocaine at work sometimes, and have sex in the manner typical of human beings, but not to the extent depicted here. There haven’t really been attempts to depict the realistic lives of bankers on television before, and there are some good reasons for this.
The racial and social diversity of the cast of Industry feels like an inaccurate reflection of the make-up of actual banks, because most bankers are cut from the same cloth and are, allow me to speak generally here, boring. They work all the time, they tend to be from the same sorts of backgrounds: upper-middle-class, white and usually expensively educated. They have expert knowledge of things like financial services software and the ideal rig for multiple computer screens. And the granular detail of their work is boring. There’s only so much scintillating dramatic tension you can make with the raw material of things like ‘leveraged buyouts’.
Admittedly, I do not know much about how financial trading works and I am functionally innumerate. I would find it confronting to be asked to multiply single digits without prior warning. But that’s not an unusual way to be, and I’ve now watched seven hours of Industry and I still don’t know what FX means. And so, the writers actively need the characters to give a hand job in a corporate shower cubicle every few scenes and take cocktails of Class A drugs to keep things interesting.
The fundamental incompatibility between the real, day to day lives of bankers and exciting televisual drama is one that it feels like the writers are trying very hard to obscure. This is the root of the cringe I experienced throughout watching it.
And trying too hard is, of course, the ultimate death knell for coolness.