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27 September 2022

Industry is porn posing as prestige TV

This supposedly gritty BBC drama offers a gratuitous, outlandish depiction of Gen Z sex. But what really grates is its smug self-satisfaction.

By Ann Manov

I always wondered what went on at the trading floors at Goldman Sachs. I spent a year interning in the rather quiet legal department in New York, where the most shocking things I heard were stories revealing a level of human boredom I had never known existed (one man, asked why he was a vegetarian, said he needed to have one single thing about him be interesting).

But the traders, I imagined, had more exciting lives – trading, after all, is the stuff of the movies. Much later, I was seated at a dinner party next to a former Goldman banker who told me about the astonishing things he’d done in single-occupancy toilets, some involving AirDropped photographs; but later in the festivities, when he seemed incredulous that anyone would have less than a four-digit “body count” it became unclear whether anything he was saying was true.

The young traders on Industry, the workplace drama from the BBC and HBO, now in its second season, have quite a bit of fun, though. And they don’t just stick to locked rooms: instead they amuse themselves in highly trafficked bathrooms, the office car park, the on-site gym, and even on the trading floor itself, right by the glass entrance doors. For the avoidance of doubt, this merrymaking is frequently evidenced by the depiction of a certain viscous fluid. Is daytime copulation at one’s open-plan desk consistent with the premise of young traders anxiously vying to retain their positions at an international banking firm? No, but Industry is not a show concerned with consistency, nor does it evince any basic familiarity with human psychology.

As best I can convey it, at the close of its enthusiastically reviewed second season, Industry is a 16-hour long compendium of increasingly preposterous sex scenes linked together by equally ridiculous scenes on a trading floor. Our main character is Harper (Myha’la Herrold), an American college non-graduate (she flunked her last exam because she had a panic attack), who begins her career in the London office of a fictional global investment banking company. The trainees are told that at the end of the year, half of them will be culled (“Look to your left… Look to your right… One of you will be gone!”) I suppose this reality show-style set-up is meant to add interest to the insurmountable drudgery of share prices and data entry. So is the sex.

The problem is not that Industry is a stupid soap opera. The problem is that it so clearly conceives itself as more than that. It is a bit ridiculous that Harper is immediately taken on a dinner with a client, but all the more ridiculous that she blows the client’s mind by saying she thinks there will be war in the South China Sea. It’s utterly implausible for a first-year analyst – never seen to consume any media other than Instagram – to repeatedly outsmart an entire industry of full-time analysts. (As it was explained to me in securities regulation class, there’s no law against flying drones over Walmart to check inventory in its lots, and actual analyst services in fact do that.)

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Meanwhile, the bank’s most valuable market marker incessantly screams out lines such as “What the fuck is an NFT?”; “What the fuck is a SPAC?”; and, “Does anyone here give a fuck about meme stocks?” (This is what the Guardian has called “background dialogue better than most show’s [sic] actual scripts”.) But the function of these lines, as is the case across this rapidly forming genre of prestige streaming drama, is to make the audience feel like insiders because they have a vague familiarity with certain buzzwords. The Atlantic, which called this “the most thrilling show on TV”, remarked on how “the illegibility of the chitchat in these shows is part of the fun: The viewer comes to feel the thrill of initiation, an intellectual ‘aha,’ as they learn about a strange part of our world”. Aha.

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The show’s class criticism is just as transparent, a relentless and explicit barrage of terms, all safely recognisable to US viewers, requiring no decoding and possessing no ambiguity. In the pilot, one character sarcastically remarks of another, “It took you that long to mention Eton!” One wishes the show could advance more than 17 minutes without such low-effort “social criticism”. An unemployed potential roommate for Harper wears a Jeremy Corbyn T-shirt; a hedge fund manager, upon discovering that his son is sleeping with his black male tutor, says, “I’m an ally, who can afford not to be?” Many conversations lack even the façade of humour: there is plenty of clunky exposition. “I went to state school,” one character informs Harper, helpfully.

Succession, which Industry rather embarrassingly yearns to be, is not just a show about a ruthless corporation; it is a show about a demented family, sustained by fantastic actors and terrific writing. The Sopranos, still the unchallenged summit of prestige drama, is not just a show about mob deals; it is a show about a disturbed family, one tortured in completely distinct ways. Industry fails to capture any interest from its banking setting – who cares if any of these cartoon trades work out? Yet instead of developed characters, it aspires to complexity by making each person equally evil, distinguishable only through variations in class and sexual proclivity: a cheap attempt to seem superior by virtue of indifference. The only inner life, here, appears to be what these people do in the bedroom (and the bathroom, club, hotel, trading floor, taxi, etc).

And so the femininely submissive Lebanese heiress is secretly into humiliating guys, and the former state-school pupil is into being humiliated. The tall blond “Chad” is secretly sleeping with the black old Etonian. And an aggressive female client grabs the genitals of one first-year analyst after another, in a cowardly, “post-left” attempt to avoid a more typical sexual harassment scenario (of course, the state-school character calls her “mommy”).

It would be fine if Industry were merely porn; look, HBO had a whole show premised merely on a gigolo being well endowed. Game of Thrones, I suppose, made it socially acceptable for blockbuster television to have gratuitous and purely pornographic sex scenes, designed to arouse, not to elucidate. What grates is Industry’s smug satisfaction with its own pseudo-sophistication. If all these sex scenes were heterosexual missionary, the show would read as bizarre smut; as they are, they are no more subtle, no more emotive, no less full of prurient close-ups and points of view. And yet because of its thin sprinkling of novelty (polyamory, BDSM, female onanism, humiliation, analingus, whatever), the show is instead considered “real”.

Of course, none of this is real. The show’s creators say the sex scenes were inspired by those in Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), and like that film (a now ridiculed coming-of-age drama in which Chloë Sevigny’s teenage lead contracts HIV the first time she has sex), Industry is an outlandishly exaggerated view of the sex lives of young people, one exploiting youthful beauty in service of a reductive and alarmist world view. Young colleagues do not run through an exhaustive permutation of their coworkers. Nor do they harbour a secret sexual predilection that serves as a shorthand for their soul. And yet it’s fun to watch them go at it, isn’t it, especially if you can simultaneously pat yourself on the back with your left hand for watching such gritty, socially critical art.

Ultimately, Industry is a void: a few charmless non-characters chattering like idiots into their headsets, and then running off for a few minutes of mercifully fewer words. In one scene, a character pushing a highly pessimistic investment strategy says, “It just so happens that the worst is also the truest.” This seems to have been Industry’s theory of art; but as it so happens, the worst is just the worst.

[See also: Big egos and cringe pitches: Make Me Prime Minister is The Apprentice for politics]

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This article appears in the 28 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Truss Delusion