Given the degree to which Wall Street and investing and risky start-ups have been romanticized in American culture, it's surprising how underrepresented they are in prime time. The first of two series that hope to fill this gap premiered last night on TNT. It's called Bull, and the debut episode at least is a pretty good example of why the supposedly thrill-packed world of capital formation can make for such dull entertainment.
The premise of Bull is this: A handful of young hotshots at a prestigious Wall Street firm decide to break off and found their own shop. It's not about the money, of course, but then again money isn't a bad thing either. The breakaway crew is led by the rebellious scion of the firm's founder, and includes all the usual stereotypical characters portrayed by people who are very good-looking, although maybe not so good-looking as David Faber or Maria Bartiromo. The show's narrative style follows one of the primary paths of hour-long episodic dramas: the quick cut, keepin'-it-real melodrama of, for example, NYPD Blue.
What was noteworthy about last night's episode was the show's startlingly cynical view of white-shoe Wall Street. The prestigious Wall Street firm is apparently an investment bank and broker for high-net-worth clients, although it also seems to be part bucket shop (one bit player is overheard trying to get a cold-callee to convert a Social Security check into some stock or other). At one point, the firm's patriarch explains to his hothead grandson that not only is the world run in secret meetings behind closed doors, but that at those secret meetings, Cohibas are actually smoked and Grand Marnier is actually drunk. At another point, he explains that it's fine that a hotshot broker who is black is doing well, "As long as he understands there's a glass ceiling at this firm." So you get the picture? Those old Street guys are bad news. They're living in the past! They just don't get it.
This brings us to the real problem with Bull, which isn't the cartoonish villainy of the bad guys; cartoonish villainy is probably the only thing that might make a show like this watchable. The problem is the tedious earnestness of the heroes. The show seems determined to make its main characters worthy of America's apparent embrace of Wall Street. It's easy to understand why the producers would think that's a good idea, but it isn't. There's no consistent connection between the way we think about a profession in real life and who we cheer for in our entertainments.
The obvious reason that there are so many shows about lawyers, cops, and the medical profession--none of which is celebrated in the wider culture the way that successful investors are--is that it's easy to come up with life-or-death plots on a regular basis. In the first episode of Bull, the character filling the role of young man from the provinces is validated when the stock of a latex firm he's been touting pops four points. Somehow the scene in which his stock-picking prowess is confirmed lacked the tension of a wild-eyed E.R. doctor trying to zap a pulse back into a stopped heart and screaming "Dammit, don't you die on me!"
It's a little unfair to judge a series by a single episode, when the characters haven't really had time to develop, and there's always the hope that as things move forward the self-righteous protagonists will start developing real personalities and stabbing each other in the back. The second dramatic money series that's scheduled to debut in the fall is The Street, on the Fox Network, a creation of Darren Star. Star is the creator of Melrose Place, making him an important figure in the history of the other predominant strain of hour-long episodic dramas--the campy, preposterous soap opera. Has potential, don't you think?