TV Review: The Super-Rich Kids of Billions

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L-R: Damian Lewis as Bobby "Axe" Axelrod and Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades in Billions. Photo: JoJo Whilden/Showtime

The pilot for Showtime’s new financial drama is exhausting, and not in a good way; it gets better in week two, and better still in week three, as its federal prosecutors–vs.–one-percenters plotting becomes more tangled, and the characters start making increasingly aggressive moves to hurt each other and protect their positions, which are considerably more fragile than they seem. The ad campaign positions the show’s two main nemeses, Damian Lewis’s self-made billionaire Bobby Axelrod and Paul Giamatti’s U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoads, as heavyweight boxers who trade body blows by way of money and the law; we see them as animated GIFs facing off in profile, glowering and screaming at each other. It doesn’t take Chuck more than a few scenes to compare Bobby, whose questionable financial dealings are about to become the target of his most ambitious investigation, to “Mike Tyson in his prime,” and the punchline, pun entirely intended, is that eventually even a fighter as ferocious as Tyson starts to fade, opening himself up to defeat by a challenger that experts figured for a chump. Bullfighting comes up, too: “A good matador doesn’t try to spear a fresh bull,” Giamatti explains.

Like a lot of premium-cable dramas from about ten years ago, which is the era Billions often seems to belong in, it’s very, very, very, very male — part of that Glengarry Glen RossBoiler Room–Wolf of Wall Street subgenre about guys measuring each others’ bank accounts instead of the usual. There’s even a scene where Bobby’s dog whizzes on the kitchen floor and he treats it as a teachable moment, explaining the origin of the phrases “marking territory” and “pissing contest” to his children. Nearly every sentence out of the characters’ mouths is self-hype, a threat, or a harangue — often all three at once. The handful of women in the main cast swagger and expound, too, in lingo not hugely different in sound or intent than the men’s. “Just like smoking in the girls’ bathroom at St. Mary’s,” says Bobby’s wife Lara (Malin Akerman), vaping outside of a fundraiser. “You had to be quick or you’d be over a nun’s knee.” Nobody walks. They swagger or strut. It’s not as mordantly funny as it plainly wants to be, except when Giamatti is doing his trademark rage-whine. But after a while the wall-to-wall peacocking does become amusing, if only because there’s an obvious chasm between the characters’ inflated self-images and their realities.

The show’s most intriguing element is the marriage between Chuck and his wife Wendy (Sons of Anarchy’s Maggie Siff), who works as an in-house therapist-slash-motivator for Axelrod and makes eight times her husband’s salary. At first Chuck resists prosecuting Bobby, insisting it’s not about keeping the peace in his home even though to some extent it absolutely is. Then he realizes he has no choice because he’s being accused of going easy on Bobby, a self-styled Warren Buffet–type populist moneybags who saw cosmic signs in his inexplicable survival on 9/11 (he was at lunch when the planes took out everyone else in his trading firm) and carries himself like Jesus H. Rockstar, smiling benevolently while telling charming stories about his working-class upbringing, bestowing tuition checks on survivors’ children, fending off accusations of malfeasance and hypocrisy with Jedi-mind-trick blather. By the end of the pilot, Chuck has decided to go ahead and take down Bobby (not a spoiler; there would be no show if he didn’t). Ostensibly it’s because he blames himself for a Bobby-related tragedy, but soon you start to wonder if he really does resent his wife for not being a docile helpmate like his dear mother, and if deep down perhaps he resents people like Bobby, and Wendy, too, for prospering by embracing the gospel of selfishness while he’s toiling in the name of the law.

At its best, Billions gives a game cast plenty of extreme situations to wrap their talents around (as you might have heard, the pilot opens with Chuck tied up on a carpet while a dominatrix stubs a cigarette out on his chest and pees on the wound) and reams of tricky dialogue to deliver (“Big Irish fam, five sibs,” Lara says, thumbnailing her background some more). And it certainly does have its moments, mainly when it shifts its spotlight to supporting players like Breaking Bad’s David Constabile (as Bobby’s iceberg-cool right-hand man) and Boardwalk Empire’s Glenn Feshler (as a former law professor pulling down a grand an hour working for Axelrod). The big question is whether audiences will find this world innately fascinating enough to keep revisiting it each week even though the characters are mostly super-rich versions of people you’d cross the room at a party to escape.