‘Billions’ Wins On Character Focus


“Billions” smartly chooses character over financial wheelings and dealings

Adam McKay’s The Big Short, the seriocomic take on the 2008 housing and financial crisis, received five Oscar nominations last week. It’s a sign that, as with the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars, Hollywood takes its own sweet time to come around to some difficult-to-navigate present day topics. It’s a good thing, too, because with time comes perspective. Rushing into production on a more recent subject matter robs you of perspective. It leaves us with 2008’s W. Enough said about that one. Continuing the financial crisis exploration and the mentality that spawned it, Showtime’s Billions dives into some of the same topics as The Big Short, but it takes a different, more accessible approach to the subject matter. By focusing on character development, Billions gives us an admittedly more soapy version of financial matters, entertaining as much as it angers.

Billions stars Paul Giamatti (Sideways) as U.S. Attorney from New York Chuck Rhoades. He’s an interesting figure, content with winning what is widely considered by the press to be easier cases. The all-in goal is to maintain his 81-0 winning record. Giamatti gives us his best bluster, particularly in the bloviated press conference sequences. Yet, his segments are the most engaging of the series. He’s saddled with a wealthy father whose entangling alliances to those Rhoades has to prosecute provide some thoughtful interactions. Additionally, Rhoades’ wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), proves an admirable life partner as the two struggle to maintain balance within their marriage.

The trick is that Wendy works in Bobby “Axe” Axelrod’s (Damian Lewis) billion dollar hedge fund. She’s a psychiatrist for the struggle masters of the universe who can’t deal with the daily pressures of turning millions in profit. As Rhoades’ position as U.S. Attorney slowly encroaches upon Wendy’s day job, the obvious conflicts of interest provide much of the interpersonal drama within the pilot. Suffering by comparison in the development area, Axelrod is a local folk hero, the only member of the hedge fund to survive the 9/11 attacks. As a result, Axelrod covers college tuition for the children left behind. Anyone who opposes him has to deal with his pit bull wife, Lara (Malin Akerman). It’s not immediately clear how dirty Axelrod is. But how clean is anyone in this field, really?

The pilot spends a great deal of time bouncing back and forth between Giamatti and Lewis as Axelrod contemplates the $64 million purchase of a beachfront house. Giamatti’s Rhoades had always considered Axelrod off-limits because of his high marks in public approval. Personally, I did not fully grasp the criticality of whether or not Axelrod purchased the estate. He’s likely spending an equal amount on the children of his hedge fund partners. Yet, it proves the deciding point as Axelrod effectively says “fuck you” to the government and buys the house, setting up the likely conflict for the remainder of the season as Rhoades pursues a federal case against him.

To me, the Billions pilot wasn’t so much about the financial crisis as it is the people behind it. I’m assuming further indictments of the financial markets are forthcoming, but it’s not as immediately bluntly handled as similar subject matter in The Big Short. Here, the primary goal is to entertain, and the creators have succeeded in that by providing such compelling and rich characters. I was particularly impressed by Maggie Siff in the so-much-more-than-a-wife role. Giamatti, Lewis, and to an extent Akerman (her part here is smaller) are all great, but Siff is the real find. She’s provided such a great character to dive deeply in between these two power hungry men. I could watch an entire series focused solely on her.

Overall, Billions works because it succeeds in its basic, soap arena with aspirations to something bigger. It has the promise of being something great if it’s not quiet there just yet. Giamatti and Lewis are quite good in their roles, but it remains to be seen how significantly they can crack the current market on great performances at the Emmys. After watching Billions, my first thought was of how many more high-quality dramas can one DVR hold? Billions furthers television’s embarrassment of riches.

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