The pilot for “Billions” (which has been available online for almost two weeks) begins and ends with a twist. The first twist is that U.S. District Attorney Chuck Rhodes (Paul Giamatti) has an S&M fetish. Specifically, he likes to be peed on by a woman in leather who makes him submissive with ropes, gags and her own dominant swagger. The second twist — which I’m fully comfortable revealing because a) it’s not a spoiler, despite what the series wants you to believe, and b) Showtime President David Nevins announced at his TCA presentation the “Billions” pilot is the highest-previewed series in the history of the network, so most of you already know what happens — is that the woman who’s humiliating Chuck is his wife.
Despite what many might assume of rich, powerful, old white guys who get pissed on by a leather-clad dominatrix, Chuck is not cheating. He and his wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), are happily married and share a unique connection to sadomasochism. Yet, in a bit of truly unfortunate irony, considering the powerful imagery employed in depicting the main female character, it’s the men who do the pissing throughout six episodes of “Billions,” and it’s the women who are forced to figure out how to take it.
Meet Bobby Axelrod. As played by the charming, commanding and supremely talented Damian Lewis, Bobby is the everyman’s favorite billionaire. He made his fortune on his own, remains grounded enough to dress in Metallica t-shirts and uses his immense wealth to support the NYPD and other beloved blue-collar organizations. But he’s also so incredibly successful, he must be doing something wrong. Enter Chuckie, a district attorney who’s never met a plea deal he likes, and who desperately wants to put the cuffs on one of finance’s most likable pups.
This is the very basic premise of a series intent on being so much more than that. Creators Brian Koppelman, David Levein and Andrew Ross Sorkin write their characters to speak in similes 90 percent of the time, in what feels like an effort to both sound cool and mock these characters for needing to verbally stroke their own egos. The idea that a high-powered district attorney and mega-successful financial analyst would constantly explain their own highbrow, everyday language using stories about matadors and bulls to coworkers who should understand what they meant the first time kind of works in that these men are arrogant assholes. They very well might be the kind of douchebags who would talk down to you when you and everyone else in the room got it the first time.
When “Billions” confronts these ideas, it really starts to take off. While the series spends its first few episodes establishing the dynamic between these two financial titans, the next four find a few more subtleties in their big, brash characters, as the men discuss not only what they want, but how what they want defines who they are. There’s no defined hero and villain here, though the show does go to great lengths in explaining why you’re rooting for either of these men. It’s deliberately subjective, which is somewhat refreshing when five years ago this would have been about two explicit antiheroes.
But for all the time and attention paid to these guys, “Billions” struggles to shift focus to its leading ladies. Some credit should be given for trying, as the brash nature of “smarter than thou” machoism would have been overwhelming without screen time devoted to Siff, as the aforementioned dominatrix/therapist Wendy, and Malin Ackerman, as Bobby’s shrewd…wife, Lara. It’s Lara who really feels out of place in this world: We don’t get to know too much of her background, but she’s as devoted to their kids as to her husband. And, oh boy, is she dedicated to her husband. Unless I’ve left a plot thread out of my notes, nothing Lara does in “Billions” is for herself. It’s all for Bobby.
Her longest arc thus far revolves around passive-aggressively putting a former partner’s wife in her place. You see, the widow is unhappy with the direction Bobby has taken the company after his three partners were killed inside the World Trade Center on 9/11 (a distracting tidbit planted early on that seems to be begging for its own lengthy conversation and resulting twist). So she writes a tell-all book that paints Bobby in an unflattering light, and that’s unacceptable to Lara. Bobby actually never even catches wind of the potential scandal because Lara so efficiently nips it in the bud. Because that’s all Lara does. And she may be good at it, but much of her action items in these first six episodes are duties typically relegated to a personal assistant, not a woman with a life of her own.
While Lara’s adventures are so disconnected they’re obviously an issue, it’s Wendy who may determine whether “Billions” ends up maturing into the must-see TV it strives to be. Rather than being tied solely to her hubby, Wendy works as the in-house therapist for Axe Capital. She’s known Bobby Axelrod longer than Chuck, and her job puts her in a unique position of learning the exact secrets Chuck is searching to expose. But it’s the relationships that she successfully builds between both men that make Wendy a pretty fascinating person to follow. That being said, most of what she does is still seen through the lens of one man or the other. The writers make a point to provide her with needs and desires, but most of her choices are only dramatic because of how they affect Chuck or Bobby. Wendy needs to become self-sufficient; as dominating as a true dominatrix, not one stroking men’s self-image. What she does by season’s end will be a huge difference maker for the show, even if her projected growth will only make Lara’s lack thereof look all the worse.
That being said, Lara stands out so far from the other three leads I almost expect a “Mr. Robot”-level twist to completely change our perception of her. It would have to for “Billions” to ever rise above a B-level drama, even if Lewis, Giamatti and Siff enrich their characters with a magnetism all the similes in the world can’t replicate (and they try). There’s enough talent in this Showtime drama — and plenty of soapy allures — to keep the candle burning throughout Season 1. It’s more than rich white guys having wild affairs and throwing money around in gratuitous fashion. In fact, that it’s not that is surprising in and of itself. But to compete with other great dramas, “Billions” needs to reinvest in its ladies.