This fall, I became obsessed with Industry, HBO’s buzzy drama about cutthroat London investment bankers. The series, which aired its second season this year, does an excellent job of making an opaque career just legible enough for finance-illiterate people like me to follow along. My brain pathologically cannot hold on to money terms, but Industry was enthralling for its heightened depiction of something familiar: the combustible connections and conflicts forged in the cauldron of a hyper-competitive office. An early second-season plotline concerned anti-heroine protagonist Harper’s return to her desk after many Covid months holed up in work-from-home isolation – back to the rivalries, back to the social performance, back to playing the game.
The New Yorker’s Carrie Battan wrote in August that Industry, along with FX on Hulu’s The Bear and Apple TV+’s Severance, heralded a rise in workplace television not seen since the heyday of Mad Men, which ended in 2015. That is true insomuch as Industry shares a particular prestige TV ethos with Mad Men: fascination with the nebulous, charged, indefinable relationships that form between people who spend a lot of time together in an arbitrary place, often for a dubious purpose. But workplace television never went away, nor was Industry the only harbinger of office-set shows in 2022. From the pressurized cubicles of corporate high-rises, to the cheap sloganeering of 2010s tech unicorns, to the cortisol-laced backrooms of a kitchen, The past year in prestige TV wrung drama, for better and for worse, out of jobs and our fraught attachments to them.
For years concurrent to and following Mad Men, the workplace was the terrain of sitcoms, soaps and procedurals. Think: The Office, Parks and Recreation, Superstore and recent hit Abbott Elementary; Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, The Good Wife (and then The Good Fight) and The Morning Show; or any number of police shows in which fictional hyper-competency is central to the appeal. This spring ushered in a new, uneven mini-genre of workplace TV: true-story “bad entrepreneur” shows set in the hustle culture of the aughts and 2010s, in which the lines between success/grift and work/life were often indistinguishable.
Shows such as Super Pumped (on Uber), WeCrashed (on WeWork), The Dropout (on Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos) and Inventing Anna (on heiress poseur Anna Delvey) were all defined by a strain of 2010s workism – a quasi-religious American belief system, especially among the college-educated elite, that one’s work should be their passion, no grind no gain. A job is not just a job but an identity; a company is not just a company, but a movement with the mandate and potential to change the world, as Amanda Seyfried’s Holmes, Jared Leto’s Adam Neumann and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Travis Kalanick all preach in early episodes of their respective series.
Or, in the misfire that was Inventing Anna, the belief that hard work, even in the name of fraud, is worth some redemption. Julia Garner’s Delvey frequently invokes her business plan for an arts club as a defense against her socialite ruse and bill-skipping (“I work for my success”); The journalist on her tail, Vivian Kent (Anna Chlumsky, playing a fictionalized version of NY Mag reporter Jessica Pressler), expresses admiration for her gall and ambition. (Vivian, ever the workaholic journalist stereotype, reports while heavily pregnant and literally goes into labor in the office.)
These hustle culture shows, part of a larger grouping of 2022 TV based on semi-recent true stories (including The Girl from Plainville, The Staircase and Pam & Tommy, among others) all had the trappings of good television. A juicy story with proven interest, a loose parable of late-stage capitalism and illusory wealth, the baseline hook of judging an A-list actor’s transformation into a recognizable weirdo. But they were, for the most part, missing something vital. They conjured the offices of a just-past era with varying success (Inventing Anna; WeCrashed’s “do what you love” mugs were looked spot-on, as someone whose office was once a WeWork). Only The Dropout transcended mere dramatization – the only show that captured why someone might work at a company like Theranos, why people would stay despite their doubts, and what the very real costs were. As workplace dramas, these based-on-a-true story shows seemed stuck on the fact that such scams happened. They threw money and stylized montages and decent acting at recalling that these grifts did occur, that these companies were imbued with such overwrought import and inflated values, with little else to say.
More successful were The Bear and Severance, two of the most acclaimed new series of the year, both about fictional workplaces. In Severance, it’s Lumon Industries, a mysterious corporation able to perform a brain surgery that allows employees to fully separate their work selves from the rest of their consciousness. The employees in the Macrodata Refinement Division cannot know why their outer selves confined them to eight hours a day of smooth-brain office life (viewers know that Mark S, played by Adam Scott, wanted an escape from grief over his wife’s death). Severance runs cold, eerie and unnerving, a mystery box that slowly reveals something sinister beneath out-of-time mid-century aesthetics, plastic pleasantries and cryptic tasks.
The Bear, in contrast, runs hot – literally, as characters dodge boiling pots and open flames in a cramped Chicago restaurant kitchen. Its protagonist, Jeremy Allen White’s Carmy Berzatto, has also entombed himself in work to escape grief, taking over his brother’s beloved, debt-ridden sandwich shop after his suicide. The Bear’s pace is frenetic, its tone all frazzled adrenaline, its work all-consuming; we rarely leave the tempestuous backrooms of the beef.
It’s hot, too, in its appreciation of craft, intensity, and labor. One of The Bear’s main achievements is the eroticism (and online thirst for dirtbag par excellence Carmy) it inspired without a single sexual or romantic interest. There’s no life for Carmy outside of the Beef – no dating, no friends, no hobbies save a few AA meetings. He’s barely even on his phone. There’s just a hint of a flirtation between sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) and pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) that could easily be read as a friendship. The charge is entirely in the work lavishing closeups of sizzling meat, single-shot takes of the kitchen’s intricate choreography, extended montages of razor-sharp focus.
Industry, like The Bear, is one of the few genuinely sexy shows on TV, though it delivers on actual sex and keeps its attractions entirely contained to the invisible ledgers of Pierpoint & Co. Every hookup, flirtation or charged look is a transaction of power, every emotional connection a potential bargaining chip. It’s a show that revels in a boundary-less workplace, in the messiness and sharp-clawed defensiveness that develops when everyone works all the time and everything – relationships, drugs, money, trust – is at play.
If there is one uniting theme of workplace television in 2022, it’s that none of the characters in any of these shows would consider work-life balance to be a practical or relevant concept. The Bear’s staff is dedicated and sincere but tunnel-visioned, the bankers of Industry still employed by the nature of their willingness to sacrifice. The founders of Silicon Valley unicorns were delusional (and their staff deluded) to the point of ruin. The Lumon employees of Severance tried the ultimate work-life separation and found boredom, then dystopia. The pandemic forced a recalibration of work and life that, for many, stayed in flux in 2022. But on TV this year, you could still go all in on office drama.