In its zeal to indict capitalism, Hollywood has a way of churning out Wall Street-related fare that can be more punitive to the average viewer than to the villainous fat cats who preach the gospel of greed. I don’t mean the good Wall Street stuff (including Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” which was released in 1987 and got better with age, and several other high-finance dramas that followed, up to and including current Oscar contender “The Big Short”). I mean all the tedious, hyper-macho Wall Street movies and TV series we have long forgotten.
For those reasons, I admit an initial reluctance to buy into “Billions,” Showtime’s new drama (premiering Sunday) about a wildly successful and egotistical hedge-fund master (Damian Lewis) who is relentlessly pursued by an equally egotistical U.S. attorney (Paul Giamatti).
It’s one of those shows that can look more like homework than entertainment. Maybe it was the endless ads for “Billions” in which Lewis’s character, Bobby Axelrod, expounds on the joys of surplus lucre known as “f--- you” money. Or maybe it’s the current state of my Dow-dependent 401(k). Or maybe I’m just not ready for a show that credits financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin as a co-creator.
But, as has been its habit lately, Showtime has found a real winner here. “Billions” is enjoyable in a number of ways, and not merely for its topicality or its exacting display of the lush lifestyles of Connecticut zillionaires.
At its core, “Billions” is repulsed yet fascinated by greed and deceit, but that flows both ways; the show also disdains the eager overreach of law. These themes are shopworn, for sure, but the first six episodes are so coolly, brilliantly executed (and flat-out fun to watch) that I found myself just reveling in their tone and craft. The show’s other co-creators — Brian Koppelman and David Levien, whose screenwriting credits include “Ocean’s Thirteen” and “Rounders” — have delivered a compelling and remarkably original story that is filled with florid, entertaining dialogue that ricochets from scene to scene.
If he wasn’t already on your list of people you’d listen to read pages from the phone book, add Giamatti. As Chuck Rhoades, the U.S. attorney in charge of New York’s Southern District, Giamatti has found a role that is all meat and occasional side orders of grilled hubris, delivered at such a low, growling register that I’m astonished there are microphones that can pick up his voice in such full fidelity.
Bobby Axelrod represents everything Rhoades fights against — the billionaire investor who flouts the law and lives large (the biggest house in the Hamptons; the freshly delivered custom yacht; the last-minute jet jaunt to Quebec City for a Metallica concert), commanding an army of cocky foot soldiers who reap massive bonuses.
From a working-class background, Axelrod built his company (Axe Capital) out of the ashes of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that wiped out his former employer and all of his colleagues. (He was out at a meeting that morning.) Unassumingly boyish in his hoodies and open-collared shirts, he takes pleasure in comeuppance, particularly against the old-moneyed rich — such as when he buys the naming rights to a Manhattan museum out from under the heirs who have run through their family foundation’s money, one of whom once got a teenaged Axelrod fired from a summer caddying job.
As a character, Axelrod eludes stereotype. The most surprising theme in “Billions” might be marital fidelity: Axelrod adores his wife, Lara (a ferociously protective Malin Akerman), and rejects offers to hop into bed with other women. It says something about premium cable (where nearly all characters cheat on their spouses and mates) that Bobby’s faithfulness is a rare example.
More tantalizingly complex is Chuck Rhoades’s marriage to Wendy (Maggie Siff, notably of “Sons of Anarchy,” who also played the idealized Rachel Menken Katz in “Mad Men”), who, as it happens, serves as Axe Capital’s in-house “performance coach.” Wendy is, in essence, the shrink for Axelrod and his staff, listening to their secrets and anxieties and building up their egos enough to propel their phenomenal successes while helping make sure it doesn’t go too much to their heads. This is a fantastic part, and Siff doesn’t miss a single beat or note as Wendy must act as an unwitting yet unflappable conduit between Rhoades and Axelrod. You think you have problems with a work-life balance? Try hers.
“Billions” strikes me as a sign that our shows can take a long-awaited step beyond that whole “behind every great man is a woman” trope. Indeed, based on Siff’s and Akerman’s performances, this show would be just as strong if the focus was purely on them.
And if “Billions” catches on in the TV zeitgeist, I predict we’ll be talking a lot about the secret of the Rhoadeses’ marriage, which involves their highly efficient acts of sadomasochism, with her as the dominatrix who ties him up, gags him and grinds lit cigarettes into his chest, etc., while he begs for her permission and approval. These scenes are not merely another pervy perk of the pay-cable package. It’s a mature and matter-of-fact exploration of a lifestyle that is usually portrayed as a punch line or symbol of weakness. It doesn’t make Chuck and Wendy appear damaged or twisted so much as it makes them appear strong and wholly committed to each other.
Really, the S&M is just one more detail in a show obsessed with getting details right — even when it involves details a viewer may not notice. Such as music. Often when we notice the soundtrack on high-quality cable shows, it is playlist-related, which means that someone far hipper than any of us has chosen end-credit songs that merit a Spotify hunt.
But once in a while, my ear picks up perfection in a show’s background score, which is why I’m taking the opportunity to praise Eskmo (an electronic composer also known as Brendan Angelides), whose sterile yet somehow soulful contribution to “Billions” perfectly matches the overall mood, in a way that heightens the show’s psychological anxiety and the frosty exchanges between characters. It’s one more reminder that in truly good TV shows, each creative decision matters equally.
Billions (one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.