“Industry,” the first show from creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, updates the 1980s yuppie ethic, which certainly hasn’t vanished in the 21st century: Greed remains almighty, but why stop at money? Let narcissism trickle down into every crevice, particularly as it pertains to one’s sexual and pharmaceutical appetites, swiping left and swiping right and then snorting up.
When they’re not throwing elbows and sometimes thwarting one another’s ambitions, “Industry’s” zuppies get it on like nobody’s business. Bright lights, big city — they’re still bright, still big and there’s still something bitterly nihilistic in the mix. As with the beguiling “Euphoria,” you’ll be struck by how old “Industry” can make you feel, even if you aren’t that old.
Tellingly, the first episode is directed by “Girls” creator Lena Dunham (also one of “Industry’s” executive producers), who plants some helpful signposts about what sort of territory we’re in. As with “Girls,” the show views one’s early 20s as an opportunity to make gallingly egregious errors, as reckless and sordid a phase as humanly possible.
These young bucks and buckettes start at the bottom rung (though privilege has carried a few of them this far) in a company that is trying, at least nominally, to reconcile its cutthroat environment with modern workplace manners — and not doing such a hot job at it. Myha’la Herrold stars as Harper Stern, an American with fraudulent credentials, immediately immersed in Pierpoint’s hornet nest, pitching investment ideas to demanding clients with big portfolios, under the watchful glare of her managing director (and fellow American person of color), Eric Tao (“Lost’s” Ken Leung).
Herrold is immediately compelling as a resourceful protagonist who is in over her head and yet driven to outperform her peers in an unwelcoming environment; it’s not immediately clear, however, what “Industry” hopes to gain by giving Harper a fatal flaw, in the form of a bogus college transcript. If discovered, it will only affirm whatever negative biases her colleagues may already harbor. In her determination to prove them wrong, Harper runs a terrible risk of proving them right.
This is probably why “Industry’s” twists and turns are strewn with scenes of microaggressions, awkward mistakes and self-absorbed entitlement streaks (in both the newbies and the saltier veterans), as a way of demonstrating how the rules of race and class were made to be broken — and another way of noting how the yuppie narrative has morphed in 35 years.
What remains, of course, is the soullessness of it all, and the tendency for its characters to steer deliberately clear of any deep or existential qualms about capitalism, exploitation or any of that. Like their forebears, it’s simply not on their minds. Workaholism abounds, fueled by amphetamines and other productivity enhancers. One of “Industry’s” new hires meets an untimely (though not surprising) severance early on, which barely rattles the others, who trudge on.
Impostor syndrome abounds, and not just for Harper: Beautiful Yasmin (Marisa Abela) has every advantage (including living in her parents’ Notting Hill townhouse), which becomes its own kind of struggle; she lets off steam by teasing a fellow new hire, Robert (Harry Lawtey, in the show’s standout performance), who uses his good looks and ruthless confidence to mask insecurity about coming from a working-class background.
Robert’s roommate, Gus (David Jonsson), has designs on being prime minister one day, but right now he also has designs on having an affair with a married man who is one of Pierpoint’s young VPs.
If you took away the sheen of HBO, the nudity and the British setting, much of “Industry’s” sudsiness would have been right at home in a prime-time Shondaland slot at ABC in recent years. Based on the first four episodes that HBO made available for review (there are eight in all), the show’s entanglements and provocations are what manage to pull a viewer in.
The dropped opportunity here is one of meaning and intent. We get that greed is good, but “Industry’s” message, which could be a lot stronger, is that greed itself has become a rapidly vanishing resource. The point for these zuppies is to get whatever’s left, before it’s all gone.
Industry (one hour) premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on HBO.