Showtime’s Black Monday Mines the Markets for Middling Laughs

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Whenever unexpected volatility strikes the market, as it did last December, some investors and pundits blame “the algos” or “the quants” or “the computers” for creating extreme conditions. These claims are never really that satisfying, though, and often end up sounding like a faux sophisticated way of saying, “I have no idea why stocks are tanking so much, so I’m going to say something that can’t easily be disproven and makes me sound as if I have a deep understanding of market structure.”

Arguably the earliest example of this phenomenon occurred shortly after Oct. 19, 1987—otherwise known as Black Monday—when stocks around the world cratered and the Dow Jones collapsed by a record 22 percent. To put that into context, the next worst plunge was 13 percent, and that was during the crash of 1929. In fact, the next three worst days were all in 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression.

One common explanation for the ’87 crash was portfolio insurance, which was basically an approach to automate the process of hedging and de-risking a portfolio. Thus, the ­theory goes, as more stocks fell, automated selling created a downward spiral. Despite the appeal of this theory, it’s far from proven and contains many holes.

Showtime’s Black Monday Mines the Markets for Middling Laughs

So that’s the context for Black Monday, a comedy series on Showtime, which is set sometime before that day and offers a fictional backstory for what really caused the crash. The plot centers around Mo Monroe (played by Don Cheadle), the founder of a fast-growing, hyperaggressive trading firm. As with most fictional Wall Street companies, it’s a little hard to figure out exactly what this one does: part financial advisory, part prop trading shop, part boiler room, and part corporate raider. What’s more clear is the general depiction of the firm as a band of misfit outsiders, eager to break in and do damage to the old boys’ club that’s traditionally dominated finance. The strongest emblem of this is Monroe himself, who is black.

Because it’s the ’80s, and because it’s a comedy, the show offers a cartoonish depiction of everyone’s behavior: endless vulgar jokes (there’s a long scene in which prostitutes are referred to as “ ’tutes”), copious cocaine use (even off a toy gun), and so on. To be honest, all this gets old pretty fast.

The network released only the first three episodes to ­critics, so it’s hard to know at this point how Monroe’s company will end up being the source of the Black Monday crash. There are some hints, though. The firm has borrowed a lot of money in a dubious attempt to buy a blue jeans company and sell off its real estate holdings. It’s also hired a naive, cornfed algo trader named Blair Pfaff (Andrew Rannells), who happens to be engaged to a member of the family that owns the jeans company.

Showtime’s Black Monday Mines the Markets for Middling Laughs

My guess is Pfaff’s proprietary algorithmic trading system will somehow intersect with the firm’s need to make some huge trade involving this deal, and that will crash the entire market around the world. I don’t know for sure. It’s just a guess.

I also can’t promise that I’m going to stick around and watch the entire show to figure out precisely how the plot works. The characters are all caricatures, and the endless ’80s jokes (filled with pop-culture references, such as Michael Jackson’s supposed predilection for young children) make the dialogue kind of boring. There’s a whole genre of Wall Street fiction in which people doing bad things are glamorized (Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street, Boiler Room, etc.), but the life and work of the characters in Black Monday don’t really look that attractive. In the third episode, there’s a tedious subplot about one of the brokers desperately trying to get a Nintendo for his son’s bar mitzvah the next day.

There are some redeeming glimmers. Cheadle is great in anything he does, and at one point he whispers to Rannells: “Pro tip, kid: Computers don’t make trades; men do.” It’s a great line, and true. It could’ve been iconic if it were in a better production. If nothing else, I plan on saying that the next time I hear someone blame the robots for the market having a down day.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Rovzar at crovzar@bloomberg.net, Justin Ocean

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