The best thing any piece of entertainment can have is a really great bad guy. After one episode, Billions has at least two.
The thing is, that in the filthy cesspool of human existence that is the shadow economy, no one feels like a good guy. Everyone has an agenda and everyone has skeletons in the closet. Even the hyper-vigilant-squeaky-clean-because-he’s-always-on-guard U.S. Attorney feels icky. Maybe it’s because the show opens with him showing us a moderately jarring insight into his personality. But one thing is very clear: show creators Brian Koppelman, David Levian and Andrew Ross Sorkin aren’t picking a side. There’s power and skill and danger and depravity in every realm of this show and that makes it much more interesting.
“What’s the point of having ‘fuck you money’ if you never say fuck you?”
I must have seen my first promo for Billions in like June, and I really loved that line. Lines like that, believe it or not, are tough to write and even more difficult to get an actor to spit out the right way. So, when Showtime started spamming the Billions promo, like nine years before the premiere, I thought “either they have something or they completely don’t and are trying to save a dud by pushing it like crazy.” Short answer: They have something. They really, really have something.
I came into this right off the Democratic debate, where I was already fired up about the talk of Wall Street. I was foaming at the mouth with righteous New Yawk Bernie Sanders contempt as Billions opened, set to attack it like a puma. That is seriously the worst lead in this show could possibly have and that’s where I launched from. But something very basic and very simple happened: As I waited for incompetence, bad directing, bad dialogue, forced situations, bullshit motivations, scenery chewing, or just your run-of-the-mill boringness, none of that ever happened. The writing was fresh and alive and honest. There was a very brief opening teaser scene which had the musk of some real push-the-envelope-because-we-can hogwash, but that was the only time I had a concern. The rest of the show was smart and tight and solid as a rock.
I’m a fan of Neil Burger, who directed episode one. I really loved The Illusionist (which was produced by the same producorial team who created Billions) and while I think he missed as much as he hit with Limitless and Divergence he has an inquisitive mind that I find interesting. He seems to ask the right questions. He is someone who seems to genuinely be interested in the answers and is a student of people. A Yale graduate and long time resident of New York, he brings something great to Billions, in that he really understands the subtleties of class dynamics. This is something that, honestly, if you haven’t lived it, it can be difficult to convey. Plus he’s the farthest thing from what we think of as a generic Hollywood d-bag, and I root for those guys.
In Billions we follow the story of two main characters. Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, (Damian Lewis) the billionaire local kid who loves pizza and made himself a fortune on Wall Street, and Chuck Rhoades, (Paul Giamatti) the U.S. Attorney. The premiere plot hovers around the possible purchase of a sixty-three million dollar beachfront estate, but the real story is as old as the hills. Two men inexorably set on a path to conflict, driven by their own egos and stubbornness and position. It’s not a grand concept, but it works for the same reason any show works: a smart, well-written script and great acting. Period. Sometimes that’s really all you need. Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti are just captivating because they’re both excellent. That’s kind of a given. But they’ve clearly put a lot into these characters and both Axe and Chuck feel alive and have real motivations and actual depth. God, that’s exciting. Two characters who both are self-aware, intelligent, capable, and powerful. That alone is worth watching.
Bobby Axelrod (I really hate that name for some reason, but it is what it is) isn’t painted as a scumbag. He lost his partners in 9/11. He’s taken care of all of their families. He has the same charisma as a new age guru. He meditates every day. When one of his late partners’ wives lashes out a bit at him in public, he redirects and diffuses her negative energy perfectly, and makes himself more likable. When he finds out that his favorite pizza place in the neighborhood is going out of business, he makes sure to protect the owner and partner up with him. There isn’t a shred of disingenuousness about him. He is what he is. He’s not a fraud.
On the work side, he’s a genius. A flat-out genius. They make sure to have him crush a Stanford et Wharton grad like a bug in the opener. He knows everything. He knows things about the market that no one could know and pulls them off the top of his head with ease. If the narcotic-assisted Bradley Cooper character in Limitless had a baby with the Matt Damon character from Good Will Hunting, he would be Bobby Axelrod. And the hard part about it is that if he’s that good, if knowing the market is his superpower, then he deserves to make a fortune. This is America.
“When,” Axelrod asks, “did it become a crime to be successful?”
On the other side is Chuck Rhoades. A powerful federal prosecutor with a perfect conviction record who has been raised for this position his whole life, but clearly has his eye on more. He is shrewd and calculating and intelligent and wary. He also meditates every day. He’s used to playing chess to everyone else’s checkers. When the S.E.C. brings him a possible line on Axelrod, he pushes it away, saying that “a good matador never tries to kill a fresh bull, you have to wait until he’s been stuck a bit.”
By purchasing the sixty-three million dollar estate, Axelrod will open himself up to being stuck, and Rhoades challenges him to do it. Everyone in his life tells Bobby not to, but when Chuck Rhoades dares him, it’s too sweet, too intoxicating to pass up. A duke doesn’t halt when some pissant local constable tells him to.
The show also features Malin Ackerman as Lara Axelrod, Bobby’s lovely and protective wife. She was fine. Kind of a shoulder shrug, but in fairness, there wasn’t all that much meat on the bone for her. She’s a lovely person off camera so you root for her, but I also feel like she’s on this show solely to stand like this in the promo still.
In the other camp, probably the most interesting character in the entire show was Wendy Rhoades, the wife of Chuck, but more importantly, the head therapist/psychologist/Mojo Doctor at Axe Capital. She is the conduit. She is the one person who is trusted by both of the circling gladiators, and she’s as smart and intuitive as either one of them. Maggie Siff of Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy fame feels like an actress hungry for a meaty role that she can show off her talent in. This may very well be it.
This show has a few things stacked against it. One, the subject matter. Does anyone really give a shit about these Park Ave problems? Even when I reached out to Dustin about the show to see if anyone was covering it, he said “Dick Swinging Assholes is all yours if’n you want it.” That’s exactly how I felt going in. Why do I care about these people? Do we really need another show about a pissing contest between two wealthy white men? No. Honestly, we don’t. But if you get past a stupid and unnecessary “oooh we’re Pay TV we can do racy shit” opening, there’s some exciting performances ahead. You can just feel them coming.
We got a taste of it in the premiere. Chuck and Wendy got into a barking match in one particular scene and there was this precious beat where his wife points out that she makes eight times what he does. Chuck counters with a jutted-chin and a proclamation about how he works for the “public good” and she says “No, you work for the good of Chuck Rhoades. Maybe sometime they intersect.”
“Oh my god.” He says, trying to process her characterization and his anger. It’s an honest scene written with skill and subtlety and acted and directed to perfection. You can put on a certain mask in the world, but you’re not going to fool your wife. especially someone as smart and capable as Wendy Rhoades. That shit doesn’t fly. I laughed out loud at how perfect Giamatti’s “oh my god” was and rewound it four times (and four more while writing this review).
If Billions lives up to its potential it will be a fascinating portrayal of three very accomplished people and the pitched battle they’ll fight in the courts and press and banks. It will remind us that while money is amazing to have, it can still be the noose you hang yourself with. But more than that, it will be a character study of small moments, powerful acting and a review of the form of the current American Dream.
If it fails, it will be because of poor producorial choices: focusing too much on trying to be edgy when the very clear strength of this show is the human quotient. At it’s worst it could feel like a financial sector Nip/Tuck. At it’s best it’ll end up being a New York The West Wing. This world doesn’t need a show about rich white dudes and a male pissing contest, but right now it’s the show we have and despite a few iffy choices, it has the potential to be really good.
I never thought I’d be into it but I’m hooked and actually- I’m really excited about it.