In the midst of a bachelor party on FOX's new show The Street (premiering November 1), a fast-talking securities salesman named Freddie pulls out a wad of cash in an attempt to persuade two strippers to provide extra services. Standing in bikinis and stilettos in the noisy club, they demand equities. "Blue chips, small caps, munis, whatever. We're flexible," says the brunette. Freddie, both unethical and horny, tips them off about a company his firm is taking public and suggests that they call their broker. "Broker?" says the blonde, in a thick Russian accent. "Do we look like a suckers? We're on the line. We make our own trade, tenkyouverymuch." On Bull, TNT's first original series, which began airing in August, one of the partners in an upstart investment firm brags to his colleagues that his 10-year-old son asked for shares of AOL as a birthday gift. "Is that not the greatest thing you ever heard?" he beams.
Maybe not, but FOX and TNT are certainly banking on the notion that the practices and logic and lingo of financial culture have recently seen an unprecedented popularization--even hookers and small children are doing it!--and that the time is therefore ripe for Wall Street dramas. It's a challenge, though. An interest in stocks does not suddenly make stockbrokers interesting. And as Hunter Lasky, the philosopher-shark played by Stanley Tucci in Bull, puts it to the firm's rookie, "We don't spout the law. We don't provide medicine for the sick. What do we do? We make money. We fill our pockets by any means necessary." This can be a problem for television.
As Wall Street stereotypes--does anyone really begin every day calling, "Let's make some green, people"?--Bull's characters run the risk of seeming like the sort of people who would fill their pockets by any means necessary. Michael Chernuchin, the show's writer/producer, recently recounted to The New York Times that one TNT executive, concerned that viewers might not like the show's bankers and traders, recommended that the "characters just give away a lot of their money to charity." The executive might be right about the likability thing, given that one protagonist lost his family's savings on a high-risk speculation yet hid the information from his pregnant wife; another bet a client's $200,000 on a horse race; another filed what he had earlier argued was a bogus racial discrimination suit against his former employer; and still another argued to her boyfriend that whether she had slept with a client to close a deal didn't matter so long as she got his signature. The whole lot of them objected when Lasky "green-mailed" a small-town paper company for $5 million by threatening to take it over and fire everyone in it--but then they kept the money anyway. "I learned a long time ago to forgive myself if I do something that's unforgivable," says Lasky, the show's anti-conscience.
Getting into that mind-set could be interesting and weird, especially if along the way you're vicariously enjoying the good life with these characters. Unfortunately, though, Bull does not have the courage of Lasky's convictions, and you can feel the show sweating to convince you, against the evidence it provides to the contrary, that its young investment bankers and traders are not bad at all--they are flawed, sure, but these are the good kind of money people. To begin with, there is the David-versus-Goliath setup. In the pilot, a group of mavericks defects from an established, old-economy, WASPy firm to start their own operation, led by "Ditto," the rebel grandson of the old firm's founder. He is joined by the ethically challenged Lasky and the innocent midwestern rookie Carson Boyd, along with Marty Decker (vaguely Jewish mergers-and-acquisitions guy), Corey Granville (Harvard-educated African-American trader), Marissa Rufo (up-by-the-bootstraps Italian-American commodities broker), and Alison Jeffers (sharp, pearl-wearing, white investment banker). The powerful, racist, patriarchal, greedy, and vindictive grandfather, nicknamed "the Kaiser," does everything he can to smash the scrappy new company; their battle, fought through various investment deals, is the central drama.
Never mind that the new firm is in the exact same business as the old one. As Ditto tells his troops in a crisis, they began with a higher purpose: to "start something that was ours," something different from what "the suits" were up to, which involves "pushing the envelope," "climbing to the top of the ziggurat," and "becoming a hero of your own life." And in case that arsenal of inspirational clichés doesn't do the trick, each character is also issued a sympathy-inducing Personal Obstacle: a gambling addiction, accusations of race betrayal, a duplicitous sister, a mother with Alzheimer's, a sleazy boyfriend, naïveté.
On top of their fight against the Kaiser, their personal obstacles, their higher purpose, and their long hours, the renegades are also saddled with rudimentary moral crises. "What am I doing?" Alison cries into a ladies' room mirror. Carson worries to his wife about profiting from Lasky's unethical behavior, and Marty wonders to his wife why, after landing a "big fish" client, he feels so sad. (The wives have little to do here other than comfort angst-ridden men.) Corey confesses that the firm falls short of his dreams of it as "my Iliad, my 'Ode to a Grecian Urn,'" and Marissa is uncertain if having money is really as great as she imagined it would be during her working-class girlhood.
Such trite, humorless, unlikely ruminations may make the characters more palatable, reassuring us (and therefore nervous television executives) that money can't buy happiness, but they also detract from the complexity they are meant to introduce. Bull toys with the darker possibility that its central characters, twisted like us by money dreams, are more like Hunter Lasky and the Kaiser than unlike them, but in the end abandons it. Instead, the show gives us characters who can hardly move under the weight of their likability. One is almost relieved when Tucci's scenery-chewing Lasky breezes in: the unreconstructed capitalist for whom acquisition brings pure joy and money expresses true love, and apparently the only person on Wall Street who can play the game without flagellating himself afterward.
Hunter Lasky's counterpart on The Street--which also features a brood of good-looking young people making lots of money--is Freddie Sacker, a fast-talking pig of a man who accuses the protagonist, Jack Kenderson, of wasting his "mojo" by getting married, refers repeatedly to his penis, rants about "feminazis," informs a woman that he is not wearing underwear, claims that Hollywood is run by "chicks training other chicks to be lady lovers in preparation for a world without men," and pees in a coffee mug. Nobody, least of all the show, takes Freddie all that seriously--as played by Rick Hoffman, he's despicable, funny, and pitiful--nor is he there to remind us how good everyone else must be. In fact, although Jack is a solid guy who respects women, he and Freddie are friendly brothers in a quirky Wall Street fraternity that includes a geeky Woody Allen-ish research analyst named Evan and a working-class former Navy Seal named Chris. Waiting to join is Tim, a fresh-faced trainee at their firm who, in the pilot, is treated to an elaborate hazing process involving a trip to Brooklyn for bagels and the mug of urine. They do not agonize over how turned on they are by money. Their boys-will-be-boys banter is about things like Xena versus Buffy. They are actually kind of fun to be around.
Perhaps that's because The Street is not all that interested in business, except as an excuse to reveal, as the promotional materials put it, "what men are really like and how they feel about sex, money, and power." Created by Darren Star, of Melrose Place and Sex in the City fame, it is hardly a critical ethnography of Wall Street, of course. But rather than even trying to mine the business world for drama, it simply focuses on the boys' club in crisis. Ass-kicking women enter the club, and we watch the conflicts and comedy that result as the men scramble to prop up their masculinity and manage reversed roles. Jack's engagement is on the rocks since his fiancée treated him like "some company you want to acquire"; Donna, an ambitious receptionist who wants into the company training program, cashes in a chip from a sexual encounter with Chris; Catherine, a new VP, demolishes subordinate Freddie, throwing in a crack about his penis size; Evan falls for his fantasy, a Xena-impersonating stripper, who turns out to be a dominatrix. As The Street tells it, success on The Street requires what the boss of the firm calls "big, swinging brass ones," and being male no longer guarantees a set.
While such well-worn gender politics is treated with soapy seriousness, the financial world itself appears on The Street largely as comic relief. On the pilot, the firm takes public a company that markets the semen and eggs of Ivy League graduates on the Internet. A heated emergency meeting is called to discuss the relative value of Penn sperm versus Yale sperm and its effects on the public offering. IvyGene's founders puke when the stock plummets and then do a kooky slam dance when it spikes back up. Like the boys in the firm, they represent the new breed of childish millionaires. The IvyGeners are played for laughs, the others less so; but The Street carries lightly our ambivalence about contemporary money lust, over which Bull wrings its heavy hands. As the rest of us watch with admiration and disdain and amusement and envy, the silly millionaires slam dance all the way to the bank. ¤