Less a comedy and more a contest to see who can make the most 1980s jokes, Showtime’s “Black Monday” would be better if it would just slow down.
Unfortunately, one of the show’s running gags involves the unlimited mounds of Bolivian marching powder that fuels a group of rogue Wall Street traders, so slowing down is just not part of the plan. It’s one snort after another, and not nearly enough of them are the laughing kind.
You can see the potential, though: Co-created by David Caspe (whose ABC sitcom “Happy Endings” masterfully harnessed the manic side of the millennial mood) and Jordan Cahan, “Black Monday” begins in October 1986, one year before the 508-point stock market plunge for which the show is named. In tone and execution, it could almost be viewed as a meta-satire of all the ways people used to make fun of yuppies in the Reagan era.
Andrew Rannells (“Girls”) stars as Blair Pfaff, a well-meaning Midwestern nerd who finds himself in demand by Manhattan’s top financial firms thanks to his knack for programming computer algorithms to maximize market returns. Through a series of missteps, Blair winds up working for Maurice “Mo” Monroe (Don Cheadle of “House of Lies”), an ambitious, self-styled pimp figure of Wall Street who runs a wild shop of ragtag traders and is chauffeured around in a ridiculously customized stretch Lamborghini.
One can almost sense Cheadle and the makers of “Black Monday” (including Seth Rogen, credited as a co-producer and director) summoning the spirit of Richard Pryor as they shaped the character of Mo — even though it’s a role Pryor would probably never have considered, no matter how desperate. Eddie Murphy would have passed, too.
That’s because the writing and tone wouldn’t have made any sense to them or anyone else performing comedy in the actual ’80s; “Black Monday” is very much a 2010s product dressed for an ’80s party. Verisimilitude is hardly the goal, but the show has condensed and refined and extracted the essence of the decade to such a potent degree that the results are almost noxiously retro — fun at first, but a burden to maintain.
The first episode, which premieres Sunday and has already been shared by Showtime on YouTube and other online platforms, sets up a rather slim story arc that will, one assumes, lead to that fateful Monday in 1987. The series strongly suggests that Mo and his colleagues somehow triggered the market dive, causing one of the characters (we don’t yet know who) to take a swan dive from a skyscraper window.
The wheels are set in motion when Mo schemes to get the naive Blair to work for him instead of Morgan Stanley or other high-profile suitors, because Blair’s girlfriend, Tiffany Georgina (Casey Wilson), is the heiress to the Georgina Jeans company, which plays a key role in Mo’s larger acquisition game plan.
Mo’s small but highflying firm is populated with supporting players, among them the successful yet underappreciated Dawn Towner (Regina Hall) and an unctuous yuppie with a secret life, Keith Shankar (Paul Scheer). Recurring characters include Ken Marino as the possibly incestuous twin “Leighmann” brothers, just two of Mo’s bitterest rivals.
There’s so much going on that it’s difficult to separate “Black Monday’s” sharpest moments from its constant throwaway lines. Cleverness appears in each of the first three episodes (one bit in which Oliver Stone’s hired researcher shadows Mo to get ideas for the movie “Wall Street” is a nice, full basket of ’80s Easter eggs), only to be drowned out by all the frantic energy and half-attempts at humor that smother it. Rannells and Cheadle are good together — enough so that the series may yet settle down and find its way.
Until then: “This might be the cocaine talking,” Brad tells Mo. “But can we get some more cocaine?”
Black Monday (30 minutes) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.