For years, HBO has treated power struggles as delicious entertainment, wringing gasps and jitters from fantasy kingdoms, crime clans, and media families riven by ambition. Now the alpha of prestige TV is undergoing its own drama. Last week, news broke that Warner Bros. Discovery would cut staff and rethink the programming strategy for HBO Max as it planned to merge that service with Discovery+. A presentation for investors asserted that the two streaming platforms are “unique and complementary” because, among other things, HBO Max is the “Home of ‘Fandoms,’” while Discovery+, an ecosystem teeming with reality shows and nature docs, is the “Home of ‘Genredoms.’”
The shake-up looks likely to most affect HBO Max’s original content, which is largely separate from the slate of critical-darling shows that HBO is most famous for. But the presentation nevertheless played into one of the key myths surrounding the tag prestige TV: the notion that high-quality shows transcend the confines of genre. Really, in many cases, they are a genre—a fact that HBO’s emergent masterpiece Industry embraces to glorious effect.
A British-American series about young financial analysts in London, Industry brims with cinematic confidence and killer acting, offering a bleak outlook on global banking (as well as on the chaos of being in your early 20s). But watching it, one can’t help but be reminded of lots of other well-done and pathbreaking shows about smart people talking fast and swindling one another. The series is, in fact, about the same sleight of hand that effective TV—and the most addictive pursuits in human life, whether gaming or stock trading—always pulls off. It is about the ways that we disguise, so as to indulge, the primal hunt for dopamine.
The first season of Industry arrived in fall of 2020, an appropriately anxious time for a deeply anxious series. Created by the former investment bankers Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, the series follows a cohort of recent university graduates working for the fictional finance giant Pierpoint & Co. The class’s members have six months to prove their worth to the firm before half of them are sacked. This ticking-time-bomb premise straps viewers and characters alike into an accelerating carousel of schemes, schmoozing, bullying, and betrayal, punctuated by happy hours that escalate into cocaine huffing and weird hookups. In the second season, some of the one-time interns have become full-time employees. They hustle for paydays, job security, and, with greater difficulty, morsels of existential contentment in a legendarily soulless profession.
Around this humming plot engine, Industry’s aesthetic shell gleams. Whether with production design (cluttered desks encased in glass-walled skyscrapers) or Nathan Micay’s spellbinding soundtrack (percolating bleeps and bloops set to rushing rhythms), the show conveys a slick kind of density, evoking a stock ticker’s information avalanche. The headiest ingredient is the dialogue: a thick, pungent cloud of jargon and slang. “Remember this isn’t an IPO—there won’t be a month-long road show to drum up interest, no batting of eyelashes,” one character deadpanned in last week’s sensational episode. “We have less than 24 hours to build the book and adios the full position out the door.”
All of this specificity is, in a way, generic. Speaking on the Macro Hive Conversations podcast in 2020, Down said that HBO’s executives like shows that depict “confident subcultures,” which are “basically worlds that people think they understand, but they don’t.” Once you hear that term, confident subculture, you’ll see it everywhere on prestige TV: Succession’s media class, Mare of Easttown’s Pennsylvania burg, Big Little Lies’s haughty-hippie coastal community. 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.
The spectacle of realism also lets Industry get away with the sort of unreality that so much TV relies on—contrivance, coincidence, and plot holes, all working in service of juicy twists. In Season 2, the nervy and gifted analyst Harper Stern (played by Myha’la Herrold) begins to land deals that profit Pierpoint but undermine her hard-ass mentor, Eric (Ken Leung). This subplot has been riveting to watch. The speed and detail with which it has unfolded has made it easy to forget that Harper’s edge stems, in significant part, from right-place-right-time luck: bumping into an investor at a hotel, overhearing a conversation on a train.
Indeed, the illusion of the show is that it appears to care about how things happen—the words and methods that move money around—when really, the core appeal is in what happens. Who’s up? Who’s down? What’s next? These are the fundamental concerns of TV shows often dismissed as genre fare, such as police procedurals and reality competitions. Shows such as Industry just foreground cinematic reveries, social commentary, and backstory digressions that are all, in a way, also forms of expectation-fulfilling action. Themes are stated with ritualistic panache, like when a cunning billionaire in a bathrobe talks up Thomas Hobbes. Sex scenes reveal character but also, given their length and vividness, seek to titillate. The head-spinning banter exists in large part for comedy. (I’m glad I rewound to decode one heavily accented character’s diss of another: “Cryptos reek of virginity and building your own bomb, but Kenny’s more fluent than he cares to admit.”)
Keeping the viewer’s limbic system engaged is, to be clear, a noble thing when your narrative demands hours of attention—especially in an era of omnipresent distraction. Speaking to The Watch podcast, Down marveled at the way that Mad Men, that prestige-TV classic, told simple stories “in a pretty luscious way”—which is exactly what Industry tries to do. But comparisons with TV’s “golden age,” which flourished more than a decade ago, also reveal how the medium has evolved. Better Call Saul, a faithful spin-off from that era, has treated the small screen as a painter’s canvas, to be filled in leisurely. Its incremental storytelling has made for wonderful payoffs, but it also feels, to be generous, anachronistic. Industry exemplifies a new generation of shows that, like track stars, maintain excellence while setting a more intense pace every year.
Life, after all, can often feel like a race loop. Industry’s obsessive workers hustle for money, but really, they chase something more fleeting: validation from temporary wins. The show makes their hunger visceral to viewers while also conveying the emptiness of an existence built on chasing head rushes. The viewer can use the opportunity to reflect on their own Sisyphean pursuits, or they can just distract themselves with what’s on screen—either works. With each episode, the story deepens, the characters grow, and Kay and Down widen their probing lens on the global economy. Yet Industry—and ideally any decision maker, corporate or creative, trying to push this art form forward—never kids itself that higher aspirations can be achieved if lower ones aren’t addressed. “Remember,” the philosophy-reading billionaire says at one point, “it’s all just a cycle of victory and defeat.”