I had high hopes for Showtime’s Billions, even though it’s a story about two rich white dudes. The quality of acting I saw in the pilot gave me hope that we were going to see something better than anticipated, and in that regard, I’ve found myself very satisfied.
And also deeply unsatisfied.
In fact, I can’t remember a series so fraught with such ups and downs in the first six episodes. It’s not your usual matter of finding your voice and settling in. It’s wild fluctuations in quality and tone, coupled with a few structural missteps that seem primed to doom this show.
Let’s look at a few of them.
#9: The casting of Jeffrey DeMunn as Chuck Rhoades, Sr.
This isn’t a knock on the chops of Jeffrey DeMunn. He’s a good actor. But this isn’t the right role for him. I think he gets swallowed in scenes with Paul Giamatti and that’s the opposite of what you need. Also, he doesn’t at all feel like the type of upper west side grand master that the show wants him to be. I personally know a lot of those guys. This isn’t it. One thing you have, if you’ve risen to those heights, is a certain wizened perspective. DeMunn’s version of the elder Rhoades feels more like a nervous middle manager trying to hide his Keno playing from his wife. What this role demanded was that the shadow of his father loomed like Kronus over Chuck Jr, and informed every step of his career. So that when he stood up to his father it really meant something. Because of the miscasting, the chuck n’ chuck subplots are toothless.
#8: The casting of Malin Akerman as Lara Axelrod
She’s actually doing a far better job with the role than I originally anticipated, but it still feels wrong. I love that they’re trying to build the modern version of a we’re-in-this-together modern Wall Street version of Carmela Soprano, but Akerman, despite her best efforts, is miscast as the girl from the neighborhood who came up with Bobby Axelrod. Not because she can’t play it, but because the show won’t commit to it. At least with Tony, you knew Carmela was a person he adored and was passionate about. In every single interaction, Akerman’s Lara is proved to be just another one of Bobby’s flunkies. Yes, he loves her and yes, he’s loyal to her. But whenever there’s a disagreement, or a major life decision (Should we settle? Should we pull up stakes next week and flee the country in a yacht?) it’s always Bobby’s way or the highway. She is completely dismissed. If the showrunners knew that, they needed to cast an actress who would hold that void more naturally than Akerman. Someone who would have an electric charge to being marginalized in that way, and thus build tension. Akerman just accepts her fate in lovely Nordic blondeness.
#7: The fact that Bobby Axelrod really is a crook and a liar and possibly a sociopath.
We’ve all been loyal to asshole characters at one time or another. Any of us who enjoyed Breaking Bad even a little have to own that. But Bobby Axelrod, played with endless charisma and skill by Damian Lewis, despite his kind of weird looking face (which is cool, it’s just sometimes kind of distractingly weird looking), is basically the scum of our time. Being a contemporary, lying, insider-trading thief on Wall Street isn’t interesting. Not being a lying, scumbag thief on Wall Street is more interesting. Finessing the edge of that line is the most interesting. But once it’s revealed that, yeah, they made their money completely by insider trading rather than “Bobby Axelrod is actually a mathematical / market genius who does complicated transactions in his head and plays the market like a fiddle” - which is what they were originally setting up, mind you - then I’m just like “fuck that guy.” I cannot root for that character. No matter how much I like him. Now I have to root for Chuck Rhoades.
#6: But I don’t like Chuck Rhoades
In the office, anyway. I love him at home. Love. And his relationship with his wife in the first few episodes, was great. How they talked. How they understood each other. Some people don’t know what an advantage it is to come home to a husband or wife who is as smart as you. Who is a true partner in life. This show does a great job showing that, and what a boon it is to Chuck. But he’s still a little boy when his wife Wendy isn’t there to buttress him. He’s a little daddy’s boy and a power hungry child and a spoiled baby. He sees himself as bigger and better than he truly is. I don’t like how he deals with employees, I don’t like the role ego plays in his prosecution decisions, and I don’t like how he parents. He seems like a horrible father. So fuck that guy, too. Oh, great, now there’s no one to root for since this show is a dick measuring contest between two narcissists. Great.
#5: Two horrible, head-scratching scenes.
In episode two my jaw dropped open during a scene where Chuck confronts a man who doesn’t pick up his dog’s shit. I get it. If I lived in New York maybe it would be more interesting, but it was also meant to show Chuck’s sense of his civic duty. It was on the nose and horrible. Horrible writing, directing, and editing. I mean, holy shit. That scene could have been as effective with a simple look from Chuck, or maybe one line.
Another horrible scene was in episode three when Bobby got tickets to the only Metallica show in North America. After the show he has an ‘intimate’ conversation on a settee with a much younger girl who wants to bang him. It was just horrible. Again, the scene was meant to show that Bobby is loyal to his wife, even when a hot young thing throws herself at him, but the pace, the writing, the acting, it was just horrible. You just don’t see shows with such a high bar for quality allowing dogs like these two scenes to make the final cut. Both should have been robo-edited within an inch of their lives or left on the cutting room floor.
#4: Anything Metallica
Uh, so the people who made this show like Metallica, I guess? This whole Metallica thing couldn’t be more on the nose. They keep playing Master of Puppets because Bobby and Chuck are puppet masters. Ohhhhhhh. So interesting! What really comes across is that the showrunners wanted to meet the guys from Metallica and used Showtime to make that happen. The entire inclusion of the band, the interaction between Bobby Axelrod and James Hetfield, was just crap. Crap as a concept and crap execution. It pulled me out of the experience completely, like the two awful scenes above. I like Metallica as much as the next guy. Maybe more. But it’s a clunky miss. It looks washed out as fuck and it feels dated as hell and both subvert the flow of the show.
#3: The Unexplained / Hard-To-Believe Dom/Sub through line
Whenever you sit down to write any character, you have to identify their flaws, because if they made shows with perfect people who don’t have any flaws, it wouldn’t be drama. There would be no stakes. That’s why so so so many writers and the characters they create rely on alcoholism or substance abuse as their character’s flaw. Because it’s easy to wrap your head around. Lots of people can relate. The opposite is true about kinky sex. Or less true, anyway. Yes, we all have our particular sexual preferences, but I’m guessing most of the general American viewing audience isn’t as well versed in dominant and submissive behavior roles, especially considering the number of dolts who thought Fifty Shades of Grey was mindblowing. It’s just not on the radar in the same way, so if you’re going to use it, not only do you have to employ the normal usage as a plot robot, but you also have to sanitize and explain it. People need to know what makes it work. Why a wife would drive a lit cigarette into her husband’s chest. Why he would find himself compelled to be outside a kink club when away from her and why she would make him kneel down in that club on a filthy floor and demean him. In a show with this quality of performer, you can’t just pretend it’s titillation. It has to mean something and you have to explain why. Forget the fact that people who are kink addicts, who do everything to set themselves up for higher office and don’t see how that might be used against them, get a particular level of eyeroll from me.
#2: In general, the way everything comes back to who has bigger balls
Ugh. Just UGH. Last week we have a settlement conference and Rhoades has Axelrod ready to admit guilt and fork over almost 2 billion dollars and the whole thing gets derailed. Why? Why would Rhoades lose a major feather in his cap? Because he chirped at Axelrod and Axelrod had the gall to chirp back. So Rhoades flexes his power by demanding Axelrod never trade again and Axelrod rips up the check and throws it in Rhoades’ face and storms out. Ooooooh. So awesome! What the? Um, no. No no no. In that situation a victor knows that the verbal barbs of the vanquished are delicious. They are escargot. They don’t provoke you, because you’re not a ten-year-old. It’s probably the worst thing about this show. Whenever characters make smart decisions, even if you disagree with them, you can stay locked in. But when they’re just childish and grounded in immaturity or foolishness or ego or spite? Come on. You see these two characters, two men who are both counseled on a daily basis by the magnificent Wendy Rhoades and you think “you’re wasting your time, honey. Cut them both loose.”
#1: The fact that this show isn’t completely about Maggie Siff
Having eliminated both asshole male leads as potential characters to root for, the final choice is Maggie Siff as Wendy Rhoades, which should have been the reason to watch this show all along (and was for me). She’s killing it. When she’s on screen she absolutely dominates everyone and everything with her intelligence and her powerful modern femininity and her presence. She is a woman. A real woman. A deep, soulful, interesting, self-actualized, proud, hard-working, resolute woman. She’s so marvelous that when she’s with Bobby Axelrod I refuse to believe that he hasn’t left his comparably less interesting wife for her. I find it hard to reconcile that he would have her guidance and influence in his life, for what appears to be more than a dozen years, and still make the choices he has. Wendy Rhoades isn’t perfect by any means. She’s complicated. She has allegiances with two men on opposite sides of the spectrum, but she’s her own woman. I’m going to finish watching this season, and the reason is because of Wendy Rhoades and Maggie Siff.