On HBO drama 'Industry,' a no-rules Wall Street is sexy, scrappy again

The clock is ticking. A man in a crisp, white dress shirt screams, “The bell rings in five minutes!” As the music pounds like a heartbeat, the phone rings — an unknown caller.

The bell in question is the market’s opening bell. A large chunk of shares — a block, in trading lingo — that the investment bank has committed to sell has lost its most important buyer. If the bank can’t offload by the market open, it will have to take up unwelcome risk. The trader is irate.

This is the Wall Street equivalent of a thrilling action sequence, and I will not spoil the narrative for you. It comes in an early episode in the second season of “Industry,” the drama created by Mickey Down and Konrad Kay that started airing on Aug. 1 on HBO. Unlike Hollywood depictions of finance that look at crooks, high-flying titans of the industry, or people who are both, this show focuses on a cohort of fresh graduates working on sales and deals at the London office of the fictional bank Pierpoint. Amid dining with clients, pitching trade ideas, and dealing with bullying bosses, they somehow find time to snort coke and have a lot of sex.

In the second season of the series, which is jointly made with BBC, Harper Stern — an ambitious, young American with a mysterious past — reluctantly returns to the office after the pandemic, her friendships frayed in the fallout from the the opening season’s finale. She meets an investor known as Mr. Covid, played by Jay Duplass — a Bill Ackman type who made money in the 2020 volatility and takes large activist stakes.

Viewers of “Industry” come for the snippy dialogue and Gen-Z entanglements; depending on their predilections, they stay for the drama of an activist campaign over a health-care stock. The show’s innovation is to marry familiar TV excesses of the young with a willing embrace of complex financial maneuvers.

Take the block-trade scene, which had me sweatily clutching my Bloomberg keyboard. (Speaking of which, the show is filled with terminals from Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, and the company’s London office will serve as a set in a future episode.) The episode follows with an even more complicated plot centered on the differing interests of the health-care company’s three investors: an ESG (environmental, social, and governance) fund, a loyal buyer, and a new investor with ideas of his own. They’re all Pierpoint clients, but the interests of some are better aligned with the bank’s than others, as Harper’s boss, managing director Eric Tao, explains. It’s a nuance that the show ambitiously tries to unpack.

Making finance fun on screen is hard, and arguably getting harder in an age of widespread automation, passive investing and compliance duties. Algos don’t shout across the trading floor. The culture overall isn’t as hardcore as the cocaine-fueled 1980s. Viewers in the, um, industry might find their brains hard-wired to jump at anything they deem unfaithful to dry reality. In the previous season, for instance, Harper input the wrong currency for a foreign exchange (FX) trade and managed to keep lying until she traded her way out of it.

The second season raises many new compliance — or at least norm-breaking — questions. Can Harper’s friend Yasmin legally try out a new career in wealth management while keeping her day job in hedge fund FX sales? If the health-care company is based in Europe, isn’t the activist legally required to bid for the entire company once his stake exceeds 40%? How does a big bank like Pierpoint have a single department that does everything from equity block trades to currency options? (And when Harper texts Eric that she “can’t sleep” the night before the block trade, I instantly thought: unauthorized use of personal messaging?)

Perhaps the show’s most unrealistic — yet mesmerizing — aspect is the relationship between Harper and her boss. The last season ended with a twist in which she alienated many by siding with Eric and betraying female superiors who had pitched her on changing Pierpoint’s culture together. This season, she has completed her transformation from sympathetic underdog to almost an anti-heroine who snaps at, and even defies, him. The show tries to justify her combative attitude with her accomplishments, which include single-handedly turning Mr. Covid into a client (he’s oddly pliant) and presenting him with an investment idea that puts her further in Eric’s crosshairs.

If you suspend the nitty-gritty of realism, the show is — unlike present-day Wall Street — fast, breezy, and fun. I mean, have you gone pheasant shooting at a Welsh manor with an investment bank and three bickering hedge fund clients? For a moment, I wondered how likely it was that Pierpoint’s investment bankers could jointly throw an event with the sales team, given the regulatory barriers between the businesses. Then I shrugged it off and enjoyed the chaos. “Industry” doesn’t always make sense, but I’m invested now.

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