In June, Elon Musk, having grown fed up with the pandemic-era shift toward remote work, demanded that his employees spend forty hours a week in the Tesla office or risk expulsion. He hasn’t been the only captain of industry to protest the effects that the pandemic has wrought on work culture. Last year, the JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon declared that working from home wasn’t a viable option for “those who want to hustle.” By this spring, he was forced to admit partial defeat, writing in his annual letter to shareholders that more flexible work configurations would likely be permanent. Even in the most notoriously cutthroat office environments—those that tend to attract self-selected pools of masochists—the pandemic has shone a light on an alternative mode of operating. The office is no longer an inescapable center of gravity—a reality that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
But, as the office grows less appealing in real life, on television it is now the most exhilarating place to be. Over at the London offices of Pierpoint, the fictional investment bank depicted in HBO’s lascivious workplace drama “Industry,” the return to office is less of a power struggle than it’s been at JPMorgan Chase. The show’s second season, which premières on Monday, brings us to Pierpoint as the firm is returning to its normal order of business, and most of its employees have made their way back into the office. The only exception is Harper Stern, a steely and audacious third-year analyst, and the show’s breakout star. (She also happens to be Black, American, and not wealthy in an office full of posh Europeans from privileged backgrounds.) Harper is still working remotely because her desire to hustle is a little too strong.
Over the pandemic, Harper has moved into a fancy hotel room, which is littered with takeout containers and equipped with a three-monitor desk rig to enable her workaholism. “How many hours are you spending away from your rig?” Stern’s boss, Eric, asks her about the phone one day, concerned. Eric (also American, played by Ken Leung) and Harper are kindred hustlers, and he is much more worried about the possibility that she’s burning herself out rather than slacking. “You need to come in,” he tells her. “Everyone’s back in the office.” “How many weeks’ grace have I given you while people have been trickling back in?” The next day, Harper is present at Pierpoint—a little pallid, a little shaky, but she is there, reporting for duty. She doesn’t look back.
“Industry,” which debuted in the fall of 2020, is the brainchild of Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, two Oxford alums who worked as low-level employees at an investment bank in their twenties. Neither was cut out for the environment, but they were keen enough observers of the social dynamics in the banking world to spin them into “Industry,” a show that glamorizes and condemns the financial sector in equal measure. In the show’s pilot episode—directed by Lena Dunham—Pierpoint newbies have arrived at the firm for an intensive trial period. One of these newbies is Hari, a skittish inductee who overextends himself, sleeping in the office and frequently popping uppers. One day, his shrill manager confronts him because he’s been red-flagged for leaving the building just once during a forty-eight hour period. “I don’t want to know where you’ve been sleeping, but, optically, I need you to walk out of the office, tap your card out, do whatever, and then come back,” she tells him. Shortly thereafter, Hari is found dead inside the office.
It’s the sort of tragedy that, in theory, might prompt a full-blown identity crisis for any company, but Hari’s death is ultimately more of a public-relations issue at Pierpoint. By Season 2, a fresh class of Pierpoint inductees has arrived, and Hari is a distant memory. Part of what makes the show so compelling—beyond its icy visual palette, a dreamy soundtrack, a cast loaded with fresh talent, and a script packed with obscure financial jargon that’s fun to repeat—is the way it refuses to tiptoe around workplace behavioral taboos . Not since “Mad Men” has a show had so much fun unabashedly exploring the shadowy chaos that can develop when too many young people spend too much time at the office. Pierpoint is a place where fresh-faced Oxford grads woo new business while sharing party drugs, colleagues engage in sadistic psychosexual dynamics with one another, and information about fireable behavior is used mostly as a bargaining chip.
In an episode in Season 2, Harper sleeps with one of her new colleagues, after which she’s pictured restless in bed next to him. She relieves her postcoital unease by calling up her newest client—a hard-to-please enfant terrible of the financial world named Jesse Bloom, played by Jay Duplass—and pitching him on some edgy stock buys. For Harper, the idea of work-life balance is so absurd that it would hardly be worth invoking. This puts her firmly on one side of a cultural rift beginning to emerge at Pierpoint. The investment bank’s youngest arrivals, introduced in Season 2, are much more alert to the exploitative potential of the office, and they have the confidence to assert clearer boundaries. At a moment when hustle culture has become unfashionable—both in real life and in the world of “Industry”—Harper can seem like a transgressive antihero simply by worshiping her work.
“Industry” is the emotional photo-negative of “Severance,” Apple TV+’s workplace sci-fi thriller and one of the year’s most celebrated new shows. Directed by Ben Stiller, the show imagines what would happen if our work selves could truly become separate from our real selves. At Lumon, employees agree to a complex brain operation that creates two discrete consciousnesses: once they arrive at the office, they have no memory of their home lives, and vice versa. It’s a configuration that relies on the physical separation of work and life, and it renders the notion of “work from home” obsolete. Some of these workers have chosen the severance operation because they want relief from personal trauma. By opting to work at Lumon, the “Severance” protagonist Mark S.—played by Adam Scott—can reliably disassociate from the grief of losing his wife, for eight hours a day. Much like Harper throwing herself into her work at Pierpoint in part to escape the anguish of her estrangement from her twin brother, Mark S. shows the ways people can use the office as an escape hatch for personal strife.
If “Industry” delights in the exhilaration of a boundary-free professional world, “Severance” exaggerates the flatness of a perfectly separated work-life arrangement. Lumon’s office is a barren wasteland of corporate cleanliness where employees, literally zapped of their personal dramas, can only find joy in the dumbest of pleasures, like a Chinese finger-trap toy or a new tote bag. And the work itself doesn’t exactly offer any kind of compensatory enrichment. Lumon employees have a feeble understanding of what the shady company even does, and they spend most of their days trawling data sets for “numbers that are scary.” Of course, separating life and work doesn’t block life from creeping into work at Lumon. The show is at its best once Lumon workers begin to create new personal lives within the office, cautiously flirting with one another or trying to bond, forging the social connections that help them begin to push back against their nefarious employer.
Traditional nine-to-five offices are not the only settings that make for captivating workplace television. “The Bear,” FX’s latest hit series, is a character study of a fictional chef, but it is chiefly a workplace drama. It centers around Carmy, a hot-shot young chef who’s transcended his blue-collar origins to work at a number of different Michelin-starred restaurants. After the first rush of the pandemic, he returns to his home town of Chicago to take over his family’s beef-sandwich restaurant after his brother dies by suicide. Most of the show takes place inside the restaurant’s kitchen, a place where niceties are not required. Here, pressure and tensions are almost unbearably high, and the grind is a given. The restaurant’s motley crew of kitchen staff does not have the luxury to decide whether or not to work from home, and they don’t seem to distinguish much between their work and lives. One day, Carmy’s sous chef, Sydney—an ambitious and fastidious young woman with serious fine-dining bona fides herself—reaches a breaking point, storming out of the kitchen after Carmy blows up at her. Later, we see her at her family’s home, doing the only thing she knows how: making food, for a colleague from the restaurant.