Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) isn’t the only successful jerk who’s lost his groove: his whole damn show has. “Billions” was once as sickening a pleasure as its two despicably compelling main characters, but the Showtime drama keeps missing the mark lately, losing sight of what made it such dirty fun. Season 5 looked promising to start, with the introduction of a new rival for Axe in the very formidable package of Corey Stoll, but even Stoll’s shiny head can’t reflect the sheen missing from the writing. Just four episodes into the fifth season, and “Billions” seems to have run out of ideas, repeating familiar refrains, completely devoid of the spark of danger and unknown possibilities that once kept viewers on their toes.
Though episode four is titled “Opportunity Zone,” “Missed Opportunity Zone” would have been more apt. The episode begins with a well-coiffed Axe tossing a basketball with a neighborhood kid in Yonkers, the low-income suburb of New York City where he grew up. His sanguine childhood reminiscing seems to go over pretty well with Savion (Akili McDowell), the black teenager residing in the very house in which Axe grew up. As he’s waxing nostalgic, a reporter approaches with iPhone in hand, hitting record just in time to film Axe say, “I have Yonkers to thank for my success.”
Lewis delivers this line dryly, dousing his slick inflection with a generous dollop of faux working-class accent. If a voice could wink, this one is loud and clear. Axe has that look in his eye, and anyone who’s been paying attention can see this won’t end well — probably not for Axe, and certainly not for Yonkers. When Savion’s mom (Stacey Sherrell) flings open the window to call him inside, she invites Axe for dinner, and he promises to return with his chef. (Oh, Chef Ryan, the things you’ve witnessed.)
Meanwhile, Chuck (Paul Giamatti) is positively chuffed for his new gig as visiting professor at Yale Law School, arriving on campus looking like a kid on the first day of school. Visually, the new setting is a breath of fresh air from the usual constraints of New York City government offices, and it’s nice to see Chuck in a different mode. But at this early stage, this storyline appears to exist solely for the purpose of letting the writers take swipes either at Gen Z’s obsession with privilege and identity politics, or at the older generation’s gentle derision of such high-minded ideals. Unclear where they land, but they couldn’t pass up an opportunity to take some cheap shots at Yale Law students.
Even the introduction of Julianna Margulies can’t inject some much-needed adrenaline into the show, though the former “The Good Wife” star certainly has no trouble pulling off the Yale Law professor thing. Beyond selling that idea, she really doesn’t have much to work with, delivering stolid “jokes” like “I’m honestly surprised it took one of you so long to mention privilege.” Her gentle ribbing of Chuck seems to presage a flirtation of some sort, and it’s painfully obvious that her character is being floated as a Wendy replacement who can hold her own in a court of law. While Chuck is certainly in need of some distraction, it all feels a little perfect for a show that once delighted in the messiness of life.
Speaking of messy, Sacker (Condola Rashad) may finally get something fun to do, with her father (Harry Lennix) jumping into bed with Axe, despite his daughter’s warnings. No doubt she’ll have to save his hide at some point, and possibly compromise herself in the process. Rashad has been with “Billions” since day one, and the four-time Tony nominee is one of the best — and most underutilized — talents on the show. Hopefully this new development will allow her to spread her wings.
The only hint of the show’s old sense of playfulness now falls entirely on Wags’ (David Costabile) shoulders. The mustached mischief-maker has been frantically trying to reconnect with his adult kids, whom he largely ignored throughout their childhoods. “I lost one to the pole, and another to Jesus,” he tells Axe, before maniacally deciding he should have another one, as a “do-over,” since it worked out so well for him the first time. Costabile, who has directed an episode for Season 5, is undoubtedly one of the show’s MVPs, and he can bring the levity with a glint in his eye and a twitch in his mustache. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to lighten this overload.
Showtime airs new episodes of “Billions” on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.