The Lab is a South African drama television series created by Barry Berk and produced by Curious Pictures which is set in the heart of the high-stakes world of business in South Africa, exposing the dramatic tensions in the underbelly of the corporate world.
In the corporate game, rules are re-written daily ... exhilarating if you're holding the pen, terrifying if you're just one of the players.
The Lab is set in the fast-paced world of a corporate investment bank – where deals are made and lives are broken every day.
The series initially follows the lives of six characters at Lusipho, Atkins and Bhengu Corporate Merchant Bank, aka the Lab.
The story hinges on a major business deal that will affect the entire existence of the company. If they pull off the deal, it will launch the company into the corporate stratosphere. If they blow it, they'll crash-land in the wilderness.
Pearl Lusipho is the matriarch of the company and chairperson of the board. Monty Atkins is the CEO – complex and flawed. "Jaws" Bhengu, head of the Equity fund, rainmaker and trend-setter.
"Wunderkind" Charles "Mingus" Khathi was schooled in America and the UK, and is torn between his many universes. Nadine Shakanovsky is the legal advisor to the firm and Vuvu Sibiya is the company PR director.
The series explores the world of overnight millionaires, of million-rand deals, of materialism and power, of political connections forged in the trenches of the struggle, often pitted against old white corporate connections.
It also captures the world of realpolitik, of naked ambition and greed. It is a world where men and women are made and broken in Johannesburg's top bars and restaurants, on golf courses and in hushed conversations at cosmopolitan gatherings.
The Lab was researched and created over a period of three years. The show's set was built on the 31st floor of the old Trust Bank Building in downtown Johannesburg and has a 360 degree view of the city.
The show deals with some of the key issues facing South African business in modern South Africa, including race, transformation and empowerment in the post '94 world of business.
It shares certain universal characteristics with other worlds too: love, sex, friendship, betrayal and humour - all of which happen between the following characters:
Main Cast and Characters
Played by Nambitha Mpumlwana
Pearl is the matriarch of the firm. She is determined and pragmatic, but she's not one of the “beautiful people”.
The balance of power between Pearl and Monty is precarious, but the strife is largely internal, because both of them have a vested interest in the success of their company.
Pearl can be ruthless when protecting her business interests and power base, but her business dealings are largely ethical. She's the most socially aware of the main characters and is driven by a social conscience.
Played by Graham Hopkins
Monty is the tough pragmatist in the company. In his business dealings, he is amoral - he will do whatever is necessary to close the deal, and refuses to be distracted by sentimentality or emotion. It's all a game and all is fair.
Monty's strength lies in his connections and access to the mainstream corporate sector. This is a world which he knows backwards, whether in the boardroom or around the dinner party table. He is incredibly astute, and nothing passes him by.
Simon "Jaws" Bhengu
Played by Fana Mokoena
Jaws is the mid 30-something MD of the equity fund (a subsidiary of the Lab). He's a trend-spotter. A rainmaker. In the hierarchy of management at The Lab, Jaws, Monty and Pearl are a triumvirate.
Although married with kids, Jaws is involved in a complex affair with his co-worker Nadine.
Out of the Lab characters, Jaws has the strongest political history. But when business needs dictate it, he also finds it relatively easy to compromise what he sees as his fundamentally socialist principles.
Charles "Mingus" Khathi
Played by Mothusi Magano
Mingus is 28. He has been overseas for nine years studying, first in America and then in London. He is new to the Lab.
Mingus is a likeable guy, but naïve and innocent. He is awkward and doesn't really understand people. But when it comes to certain technical areas of business he is unbeatable. He can structure deals in ways that others would never even think of, and do it all in his head.
He is also highly ambitious and driven.
Played by Catriona Andrew (Season 1)
Nadine is in her mid-30's, the daughter of upper middle class parents. She is a senior member of the Treasury and Structured Finance Division.
She presents herself as incredibly tough and cynical ... she enjoys shocking others with her unwavering cynicism about people's motivations in life, which she tends to dismiss as being generally self serving.
Deep down she hides a terror of her own vulnerability and need for love and acceptance – the gaps in her life.
Played by Dada Koyana (Season 1)
Vuvu is in charge of corporate communications at Lab CMB. Most of the time, she uses her job and her gregarious nature to give the office a vibe and a sense of unity.
She is the vivacious spirit of the office – the closest thing to a neutral element there is. When things go badly, she is called upon to serve up spin of the highest order.
What Vuvu wants for herself is a lover as wild as Dennis Rodman, as handsome as Denzel Washington, with the celebrity of Michael Jordan and the body of Taye Diggs.
Played by Shannon Esra (Season 2)
A new entry into the world of The Lab, Samantha Mazur comes in as the replacement in-house legal counsel. A young professional, she comes from a lot of money, her father having been a successful retail empire merchant.
Her parents were loving but absent, and she never wanted for anything while growing up. She studied finance and law overseas, both in the UK and the States.
Though she never speaks about it, she was in a failed marriage while out of the country and this is partially the reason for her return to South Africa.
Incredibly bright and capable, cultured and charismatic, beautiful and sexy, Sam is a real thoroughbred – put her into any social or professional context and she will flourish.
Because of her upbringing, she is fearless and has never doubted her right to her station in life. She's never had any real responsibilities and for her, life has been a game.
She is supremely confident because she is good at what she does. She's never been intimidated by anyone, regardless of power or status, and this combination of confidence and competence makes her indispensable to The Lab.
Played by Khabonina Qubeka (Season 3)
Faith enters the Lab as a mysterious investment partner introduced by Jaws, who is trying to drum up business having lost his position in the office.
In addition to some legitimate activities, Faith is also involved in a crime syndicate that engages in the lucrative industry of gold piracy.
She pursues Jaws who she knows is desperate enough to flirt with the criminal world and they find a partnership in illicit and somewhat desperate romantic interests.
Faith is a strong, sexy and confident woman, able to operate in both the legitimate and criminal worlds. She is clearly capable of anything but her weaknesses are revealed through her shifting sense of moral standards, which ally with her inability to trust others, and her tendency to see trust as weakness.
As a result, she tends to isolate herself from others, and from the world around her.
She is difficult to read and fiercely private, a trait that will come under pressure as she gets closer to Jaws and Mingus.
She is simultaneously a source of power and uncertainty and while at any given moment we like her and are intrigued by her, we very clearly have the sense that she may be capable of anything.
Played by Renate Stuurman (Season 3)
Pamela takes Jaws’ position as chief deal-maker at the Lab. She has an irreverent and disconcertingly wicked sense of humour. Her acerbic wit and knack for sarcasm especially rubs Monty up the wrong way.
Pamela can’t speak any indigenous languages, which places her at an immediate and obvious disadvantage in moving through circles of power and influence.
When Jaws comes back to the Lab, he helps her out in this area – advising and facilitating - and although she is always slightly uneasy about the arrangement they form a bond of sorts and she becomes his unsuspecting puppet, unaware of how involved she is in his untoward dealings.
Pamela is obsessive about drawing a line between her private and professional lives. She mounts stern defences against workmates learning too much of her private life and this causes her to seem initially aloof and unapproachable.
Through the season we come to find out her hidden secret and the reason why she resigned from all three of her previous jobs – without giving explanations.
Played by Shelley Meskin (Season 3)
Her name is Priscilla – but she insists on Pike. She is in reality an arch-opportunist, a kind of confidence trickster who talks her way into different careers and opportunities as they present themselves.
She encounters Mingus when he is in crisis of confidence over his leadership role in the Lab and becomes his life-coach, giving him advice and motivation and streamlining his ways of working and thinking.
Pike is intelligent, fast-talking, supremely confident, iconoclastic and very critical of the Lab organisation. She’s educated and well-read has a dry sharp cutting way about her.
But she is not all that she seems.
Ratings and Reviews
The first season of The Lab faced tough competition in its Tuesday 20h30 timeslot from sitcom City Ses'la on SABC1, the Sotho/Tswana/Sepedi News on SABC2, reality show Let's Fix It on e.tv and even from CSI: Crime Scene Investigation on M-Net, all of which aired at the same time.
The show got off to a slow ratings start, but gradually picked up during the season after receiving generally favourable reviews from television critics.
For its penultimate episode The Lab managed an aggregate of more than a million viewers for the first time, which placed it in SABC3's Top 10 most-watched shows in Week 39 (18 - 24 September, 2006), only a few thousand viewers behind chat show staple 3Talk with Noeleen.
The critical response to the first season of The Lab was positive, particularly from readers of South Africa's premier television website, TVSA.
The Lab ended its first season on 26 September 2006, taking with it the No.1 ranking on TVSA for September 2006, as rated by readers of the website.
TVSA readers appreciated the quality of writing, acting and production, giving it an overall aggregate rating of 87/100.
TVSA Editor Tashi Tagg gave The Lab a rating of 90 when she reviewed the 4th episode:
"At the weekend I caught the latest episode (episode 4) of The Lab and it seriously blew my hair back. It was the most riveting episode of any South African show I've ever seen, leaving me silenced for ages afterwards.
"Since the show's start I've been impressed with the quality of the production. The colours, camera angles, editing and feel of the way it's filmed - as if it's real but also glossily not - gives it a class above any other South African drama I've seen.
"The pace is fast and edgy, the acting from everyone - inluding the guest actors - is excellent and the story's unlike any we've ever experienced."
TVSA blogger Observer_JB wrote in a review that The Lab was "A brilliant show from the producers and creators" and added it had a "great storyline, good actors and (made for) an enjoyable hour on television".
With 12 nominations The Lab was the most-nominated drama series for the 2nd annual South African Film and Television Academy awards (SAFTAs), held in October 2007.
The series was nominated in the following categories:
Best TV Drama
Best Director in a TV Drama (Barry Berk)
Best Actress in a TV Drama (Nambitha Mpumlwana)
Best Actor in a TV Drama (Fana Mokoena and Graham Hopkins)
Best Ensemble Cast in a TV Drama
Best Cinematographer in a TV Drama (Jonathan Kovel)
Best Art Direction in a TV Drama (Jeanine Lee Ching)
Best Writer/Writing Team in a TV Drama (Barry Berk)
Best Hair and Make-up in a TV Drama (Lucy Ngwira)
Best Costume Design in a TV Drama (Agrinneth Mokwena)
Best Editor in a TV Drama (Charlie Sapadin)
Awards went to Nambitha Mpumlwana for Best Actress, the cast won Best Ensemble Cast and Lucy Ngwira won the Best Hair and Make-up award.
Internationally, The Lab was nominated at the Monte Carlo Television Awards for Best Produced Drama.
The series originally aired on SABC3 from 27 June, 2006 to 7 April, 2009. It later aired on SABC1 (from Season 2) and on SABC Encore. There are 39 hour-long episodes in three seasons.