▶︎ Industry (eight episodes) is on BBC Two and iPlayer.
By day, the blue light of LED screens suffuses the trading floor of an investment bank’s London headquarters. Screens flash with data as markets bear and bull, phones ring, and men with loosed ties and rolled-up sleeves bark orders across desks as a new group of graduate recruits arrive at the company.
Harper (Myha’la Herrold), Yasmin (Marisa Abela), Gus (David Jonsson), Hari (Nabhaan Rizwan) and Robert (Harry Lawtey) are all green about the gills and determined to win permanent jobs in the post-recession, pre-Brexit goldfish-bowl of the fictional firm. By night, the young disciples of capitalism glide in cabs through the dark London streets to restaurants and clubs packed with moneyed and beautiful people. They drink, they take copious amounts of drugs and (shocking, I know) they even have sex with one another and film it on their mobile phones. It’s Skins in the City – but, set within the sleek steel towers of corporate finance, it’s stripped of the warmth and wit of the Channel 4 show that changed how television looked at young people two decades ago.
That’s not to suggest that the series doesn’t offer any social commentary. Harper, the only international recruit, is building a career on a precarious edifice of lies and faked university certificates, and Myha’la Herrold’s performance is one of the most compelling things about the show. Her vulnerability is exacerbated by her Blackness: her braided hair, her nose ring and her skin are all targeted by her racist colleagues, and micro-aggressions abound in and out of the office. It’s no wonder she struggles to know who her allies are in a space distinctly lacking in Black mentors.
Yasmin, meanwhile, is belittled by her male colleagues and silenced by her male boss. The boys struggle to cope with the increasingly dangerous drug culture; the girls battle with threats and acts of violence that the company will cover up at any cost. Speaking to the competitiveness of the graduate job market, as well as the insidious nature of overwork and toxic effects of workplace bullying, Industry tells stories that could affect, or have affected, us all.
The series also succeeds in creating an atmosphere of high-end bleakness. Like the markets that peak and trough on the traders’ screens, the graduate recruits experience the highs of office success, as well as the extreme lows. Nothing about the glossy façade of the City lives up to their expectations; their encounters are transient and there is an undercurrent of loneliness.
Episodic storytelling is used to great effect, too, alongside the drama of the trading floor. Harper’s race against the clock to correct a rookie currency error during a birthday hangover is brilliantly realised, for example. Timing is everything as she tracks the market up and then down again, frantically chewing on a bloodied wad of gum. The resulting scene with her line manager Eric (Ken Leung) is edge-of-the-seat drama.
However, while the show covers a lot of ground in its eight episodes, it’s not clear that it has anything new to say. Every stereotype of corporate finance culture is evidenced, and if you’ve ever seen a Wall Street movie, the surprises will be few and far between. Older women are hard-nosed bitches, and sex workers are used as props. Barely 20 minutes into Episode 1 and Harper is sexually assault by a lesbian client, yet the worst we see from the male traders are angry spiels directed at Harper and Yasmin. Of course, women do commit sexual violence. Under Lena Dunham’s direction, though (she does have the unenviable task of running the pilot episode), it feels like an ‘edgy’ gesture that’s meant to shock rather than explore how white women turn patriarchy to their advantage. Like so much of Industry, it feels like a missed opportunity to dig deeper.
Part of the problem is that the show fails to grapple with the enormous privilege afforded its protagonists by having well-paid City jobs. Yasmin, for instance, is repeatedly sent out on the lunch run, where she is forced to demand a complicated set of salads with-and-without dressing. The challenge of the lunch order, exacerbated by her being a woman performing domestic-like duties is, I think, meant to make us feel sorry for her. That’s a challenge in itself, though, given Yasmin’s independent wealth and designer suits. I found myself caring more about employment conditions of the harassed café staff than I did about the show’s Bright Young Things, who mostly seemed to come from such secure backgrounds (with more than one Etonian among them) that it wasn’t entirely clear why they had to compete for jobs in the first place.
Furthermore, I could have gotten over the idle jokes about all of us owing our existence to Margaret Thatcher if the recruits were actually likeable. Perhaps, in the names of complexity and nuance, having any character make it to the end of the series without revealing themselves as a self-absorbed narcissist was too much to ask.
Of course, as in high-stakes investment banking, timing is everything in broadcasting, too. Filmed in 2019, the show was conceived before the pandemic hit. It was in the can long before young people across the UK were let down by the A level exam fiasco, virus-riddled student halls, the harsh policing of lockdowns, high unemployment rates and uncertain futures.
That the moneyed world of Industry and its entitled young graduates doesn’t sit right in this cultural context is hardly the fault of the showrunners. Tinge Krishnan and Ed Lilly’s direction softens some of the harder edges, and Herrold, Abela, Jonsson and Lawtey will surely be in demand following these performances.
Nevertheless, inviting us to invest our energy in a story about young people who are effusive in their praise for Conservative politics, disdainful of solidarity and invested in the accumulation of personal wealth and power is a tall order at the moment. Watching the show is a bit like being sober and listening to someone at a party who’s four drinks in and has a rolled-up note in their hand: they have an awful lot to say, but I can’t help wondering why, exactly, I’m meant to care.
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