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 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 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.
Of course, it shares certain universal characteristics with other worlds too: love, sex, friendship, betrayal and humour.
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
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
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.
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.