The Nation’s Business

Traders: A TV drama too close for comfort

Peter C. Newman April 27 1998
The Nation’s Business

Traders: A TV drama too close for comfort

Peter C. Newman April 27 1998

Traders: A TV drama too close for comfort

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

As Canada more and more adopts the Money Culture, Bay Street becomes less a place than a metaphor. Bay Street—really a 20-block district of skyscrapers bounded by Toronto’s University, Victoria, Queen and Front streets—not only helps determine the price of money in this country, but to a surprising and disturbing degree, its ethical standards—or the lack of them.

Every week on television, Canadians get a peek into this world through Traders, a slick and persuasive portrayal of Bay Street’s Darwinian reality: the fittest and fastest win every time. Compassion is for losers. Money is the sex of the Nineties.

Its portrait of moral decay in the upper reaches of Canadian capitahsm is what makes it so compelling

The series deals largely with the gutter ethic of traders who would short their mothers if there was a buck in it. What’s troubling about the show, which is produced by Torontobased Atlantis Communications and will launch its fourth season this fall, is not that it is attracting weekly audiences of more than a million, but that it ventures dangerously close to being a documentary.

Its portrait of moral decay within the upper reaches of Canadian capitalism suspends disbelief without becoming preachy, and it is this gritty quality that makes it so compelling. The hour-long shows are lightning-paced morality plays in which the ambitious almost always triumph over the righteous. It is a theme evocative of Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 film Wall Street, who had an ethical bypass at birth and was on the phone 30 seconds after the Challenger blew up, selling NASA-related stocks.

The message here is that every dream has a price tag—and that most people are willing to pay it. Bay Street is filmed as a battle zone. The dramatic opening titles—backed by Louis Natale’s menacing and brilliant background music—are glimpses of an unidentified war that creates nothing but casualties. The show’s players spend their days transfixed by the eerie glow of computer terminals, frantically dialling for dollars as they try to con their equally greedy customers into buying shares in some company that’s “in play.” The shouting never stops. Like jumped-up cocaine addicts, the big shooters are in it as much for the game as the gain.

The star of Traders is Marty Stephens (played by Patrick McKenna), a charming rat fink who not only propels the action but draws out the killer instinct of his crew. He creates the show’s prevailing mood: a mixture of slapstick and foreboding that can break at any moment into a shark-feeding frenzy.

Under the control of various directors, the camera becomes a predator, probing the characters’ vulnerabilities and superficialities with cool indifference. The most devastating aspect of the

screenplays, written by executive producer Alyson Feltes, is her ability, in a throwaway phrase or three, to capture the essence of each situation.

The plot of this week’s episode deals with a scheme to move the United Nations from New York City to Montreal. The idea is presented as an altruistic gesture, but Gardner/Ross, the show’s fictional firm, also happens to own large hunks of Montreal real estate that would benefit from the deal. At the same time, the show’s dominant female character, Sally Ross (Sonja Smits), has a brief fling with a twentysomething trader—and one of the series’ sustaining characters is killed by a car bomb. In other words, your average day at any Bay Street brokerage house.

One of this episode’s main byplays is the idealism of trader Ann Krywarik (Kim Huffman), who goes long on Colombian cotton, because “the drug enforcement agency is about to supply quickgrowth cotton seeds and start-up capital to Colombian cocoa growers.” Under questioning by Marty, she admits her source is “a Mountie in my NarcAnon group.”

The purchase is disrupted by a news bulletin about mud slides in Cali, which affect the world cotton market and ruin Ann’s profit prospects. Ann has to sell her cotton contracts, but Marty has a better idea: “What grows in a mud slide,” he wants to know.

Ann is devastated.

Marty abandons all of the firm’s activities south of Mexico. “Shouldn’t we care if people’s lives are out of balance?” Ann insists.

Marty: “As it affects the price of commodities? Yes. The way it moves the line in New York? Absolutely. On the little guy who drives his donkey to work? Not a pico.”

He smiles at Ann snidely. “We scrape the silver lining off every dark cloud. Start scraping or get off my floor.”

A fellow trader tries to comfort Ann: “If you want to help Colombia,” he says, “sponsor a foster child.”

“I already have a foster child.”

‘Then make money shorting Colombia, and sponsor a whole village.”

A few minutes later, Ann decides she’s had enough and resigns from the firm—just before she’s about to be fired.

She goes off to do good works in Colombia, which is not very believable, but the message has been delivered. As Ann leaves the office for the last time, Marty relents for a moment: “I’ll keep your desk empty for when you change your mind.”

She gives him a bear hug.

“You’ll be back, asking for more money!” he shouts and breaks off her embrace.

Marty doesn’t allow himself to look up, until she’s gone.

This is not real life. But it’s great drama. And it’s a little too close to real life for comfort.