Showtime’s “Billions” offers a play on “House of Cards”
They say it’s the new novel, or maybe just a golden age, but either way, TV – long considered subservient to the more serious realm of cinema – is getting a serious upgrade. In Showtime’s “Billions”, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m., it’s evident that the medium has grand ambitions. Entering the world of high-flying hedge funder Bobby Axelrod, “Billions” hopes to introduce itself as successor to many of the well- known post-2008 financial industry films like “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”, “Margin Call” and 2015’s “The Big Short”.
Bolstering the Hollywood factor is the show’s strong cast. Damian Lewis, of “Homeland and Wolf Hall” pedigree, plays Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, owner of the show’s eponymous billions and mastermind behind the seemingly unstoppable hedge fund Axe Capital. Axelrod’s also a key target of the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, headed by Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti, delivering equal amounts of consternation to Lewis’ charm), whose old-money parentage covers him with compromise. Malin Akerman plays Axe’s very own Lady Macbeth, the ice blonde, once-working class but now upwardly mobile Catholic-schooled Lara Axelrod. Maggie Siff is Wendy, Axe Capital’s in-house shrink, pep talker and Axe’s personal confidante whose last name just happens to be Rhoades.
Yes, Bobby Axelrod’s bestie also happens to be the wife of the man who is trying to ice him. There are more than a few inappropriate intimacies like these in “Billions”, and most of them aren’t bound
by vows. For a show with such a stellar cast and cinematic production values, this melodramatic turn feels cheap. And yet, perhaps being explicitly concerned with money and the law also make the soap opera tendencies of “Billions” its least surprising aspect. What other two things speak so directly to power, and, following through, to sex?
Tools like stocks, betting, affairs, proffers, betrayals, negotiations, coercions masquerading as negotiations and the like, that motivates the show’s drama first and foremost. Second, however, to the overt drama of who’s on whose side and in which (or, rather, whose) bed a minor character is going to show up in next, is the subtler (which is not to say, exactly, “subtle,”) more interesting storyline of watching for moments when either character wins in a moral sense. We watch because we want to see if either stands the chance of possibly being marked better than the other. That each do things that make us approve and disapprove of them in turn means that we can never decide who deserves our reprehension more: the self-made Wall Street wolf, or the power-hungry future politician with family money who, despite it all, might be working for a good cause.
Aside from bouts of stilted, cloying dialogue (to be expected from a show of its nature), the show’s main failure might be a political one. By rendering Axelrod loyal, charismatic, and hardworking—in other words, the type of lead one could root for-—the show displaces its focus from the sticky greed that drives so much of the financial industry and has been the focus of so many post-recession documentaries, films and one surprisingly popular presidential campaign, onto a less potent, more abstracted theory of “success”. Watching Bobby save a small-town pizza joint by buying it out, we forget his complicity in a world that’s destroyed the lives of many like the guy whose store he’s just saved. In the fantasy of Axe’s likeability, “Billions” becomes something other than what it had claimed to be – a show about money, power and the state of things – and, instead, a documentation of the sweeping movements in its characters’ soap operatic lives: entertaining in its own right, but certainly not groundbreaking TV.