Set in the world of financial titans, bouncing between sprawling mansions, sleek hedge fund headquarters, and oak-paneled halls of the United States Attorney’s Office in New York City, featuring an appearance by Metallica, and with Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis in the lead roles, Showtime‘s “Billions” probably didn’t come cheap. However, paying for these two Emmy-winning talents is the best investment the show could make. Whether their characters are circling one another from afar or facing off just inches away, each man gives a performance that is impossible to look away from.
Giamatti stars as U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, who is introduced to the audience in the show’s first scene, hogtied and gagged, at the mercy of a dominatrix. This could play out more than it does in the first six episodes available for press, or it could be merely provocative way to titillate premium cable audiences with the pop psychology theme of powerful men liking to be dominated behind closed doors. Regardless, Chuck has higher aspirations, as the Assistant DA Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad) notes to an office newbie: “See ,what you have to understand, Michael, is that this is a fuck-up free zone. Guys who sit in Chuck’s chair become mayor, governor. We have to be beyond reproach. So no Tinder at the goddamn office, okay?”
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Pursuing the prosecution of New York’s biggest criminals, the Attorney’s office is often accused of going soft on financial crime, but Chuck, Kate, and Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) are quietly going after hedge funder Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Lewis) and for insider trading. Complicating their investigation is Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), and her position at Axe Capital as a performance coach, whose training as a psychiatrist offers her deep insight into all levels of the company. Chuck and Axe constantly search for ways to undermine each other’s efforts, turning their showdown into a chess game where the player who appears to be winning rarely is.
Financial writer Andrew Ross Sorkin (“Too Big to Fail”) created the show with Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Sorkin brings a layer of authenticity to the proceedings, giving insight to the inner workings of the financial world. There are some nice insider-level details that go unexplained, but the show doesn’t leave behind viewers who aren’t familiar with the business. Meanwhile, Koppelman and Levien have heavyweight resumes with con-centric fare, such as “Rounders,” “Ocean’s Thirteen,” and short-lived poker drama “Tilt.” There are plenty of turns in the game of who’s playing whom, and you get the feeling that all the players involved would list Sun Tzu and Niccolò Machiavelli as heroes. This is a show that revolves around money and power and questioning if you can be successful and still hold onto your moral compass — an idea echoed in “The Affair,” another Showtime series about terrible, but often compelling, people.
There are more references to shit and balls than one might expect in a prestige drama, particularly dog shit and dog balls. What one expects — and gets — is plenty of vulgar banter that has become a hallmark of stories set in the financial world. However, the show’s scripts sometimes have an issue with over-reliance on simile and giving the audience just one line too many. As an example, Axe’s wife Lara (Malin Akerman) tells a woman about her upbringing in New York City’s tough Inwood neighborhood. When the woman asks if she’s being threatened, Lara replies, “You’re fucking right I am. It’s how I grew up.” The extra punch of explanation is unnecessary and anyone but comatose patients watching from a hospital bed would’ve understood the menacing sentiment.
That said, the show picks up its writing game in the third episode, getting funnier and nastier with more than a handful of laugh-out-loud scenes. It’s filled with both of-the-moment references (which may cause the show to feel dated if you’re catching up in six months or a year), as well as pop culture and NYC nods and mentions. “Billions” walks the line between explaining these references to the audience when they’re a bit more obscure and simply dropping them in and moving on when they’re not.
Filmmaker Neil Burger (who also gets an executive producer credit) directs the first two episodes of the series, and it looks as gorgeous and polished as what you’d expect from the helmer of “The Illusionist” and “Limitless.” Whether it’s the moneyed interiors or a Hamptons estate, Jason Reitman fave Eric Steelberg sets a nice cinematographic precedent for the rest of the series with the pilot episode. Later episodes do equally well in their directorial choice with James Foley (“Glengarry Glen Ross”), Neil LaBute (“In the Company of Men”), and Scott Hornbacher (“Mad Men”) getting behind the camera. Later episodes will also include directing team Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (“Half Nelson”)
Finance is certainly still a male-dominated space, but, refreshingly, there are significant roles for women in “Billions.” However, they can be hit and miss. One of the few times the show passes the Bechdel test is during a lesbian sex scene, included more for showing coke being snorted off a naked chest than actually advancing the plot. Akerman’s role as Axe’s wife Lara has its peaks and valleys; she gets to shine at times when she shows her roots, but her character is often limited to being frustrated at being left out of her husband’s decisions. Siff gets the juiciest female part, playing off of both her husband and her boss (and the great actors behind them), though we’d like to see more of her independently.
Giamatti and Lewis are two hugely talented actors, and seeing them up against each other is enthralling. Each time they engage in a toe-to-toe tête-à-tête, the screen vibrates from the tension and the tightly reined power. “Billions” does a terrific job of contrasting their characters, both in the script and in production design details and lighting, but it doesn’t back away from their similarities, even as they’re on opposite sides of the law.
As Axe’s right-hand man Mike “Wags” Wagner, David Costabile deserves special recognition. He’s played far quieter roles in shows ranging from “Flight of the Conchords” to “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire.” Here, he’s powerful and brash, and he appears to be having the most fun of anyone on or off screen. Beyond Costabile, the regular cast is filled and bolstered each episode with guests who bump up the show in quality, particularly character actors Glenn Fleshler, Stephen Kunken, and Jeffrey DeMunn.
Though its a sharply observed examination of power, wealth, greed, and one-percenters who rule empires like Manhattan, when “Billions” kicks off, it’s not quite as smart or as good as it hopes it is. There’s room for improvement and perhaps better gauging the intelligence of its cable-viewing audience. But across the first six episodes, the quality level ascends, and the powerhouse leads of Giamatti and Lewis make for increasingly compelling viewing. “Billions” first few episodes aren’t quite so magnetic, but stick around, because by the midway mark, I was greedy enough to step on anyone in my way for more. [B]
“Billions” premieres on Showtime on January 17th.