For the last several years, Showtime has had the habit of starting its calendar with some of the dirtiest series on a mucky schedule: the inexplicable filthy but popular dramedy ‘Shameless’ (now in its sixth season, can you believe it?) and the raunchy but soulless “House of Lies”. Both have immensely talented casts, but very little substance in either series.
However, this year Showtime has decided to start 2016 with a drama that has a much higher pedigree and aims to be more interesting than anything the network has had in this time of year: Andrew Ross Sorkin’s drama “Billions”. Granted, the series involves some characters who are involved in some very shady territory, but the ideas and talent gathered are so exceptional that it’s automatically more engaging than anything cable has on in January.
The series centers on two New Yorkers in the financial district. Bobby ‘The Axe’ Axelrod (Damien Lewis), a Queens born son, who by the age of the forty has become that rarity, a hedge fund manager who is considered a man of the people. There are some very generous things about him: he is true to his blue-collar roots (though its a little difficult to believe Lewis is a native New Yorker), he is charitable to all the people he met on the way up, and he has a loving wife (Malin Ackerman) and two children. But, as is the custom, there is a dark underbelly. There is a possibility a good amount of his fortune had something to do with 9/11, he has dealings with a shady government operative named Hall (Terry Kinney) and there is definitely a good chance he is involved in shady trading patterns.
On the other end is Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), U.S. Attorney for Wall Street, who has a perfect record going after financial fraudsters. In the Pilot, we see him go after a man who was very close to his family growing up with little sign of weakness. Tipped to what may be corruption by the SEC, he finds himself wanting to go after Axelrod in much the same way the FBI wants to go after the Mafia. He is a bulldog, and very egocentric man, clearly modeled after Eliot Spitzer. Like Spitzer, he has a taste for kinky sex: the difference being, his partner is his wife. (We’ll get to her in a minute). But unlike Axelrod, he comes from money, and part of his influence is no doubt due to his father (Jeffrey DeMunn).
Lewis and Giamatti are both great actors, but as is the custom of so many great Showtime series, the most fascinating characters are the women. In this case, the more interesting one is Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), a psychotherapist who serves as the in-house performance coach at Axe Capital. She is very well compensated for her job, and she clearly has a long history with Bobby, but the conflict of interest has stayed her husband’s in the past, and clearly has here in an awkward spot. She reacts to this with a boldness to men in both her job and her home: when Chuck tries to tell her that he works for the public good, she responds by saying: “You work for the good of Chuck Rhoades. Maybe, sometimes they intersect.)
There is a formidable amount of talent assembled for this series, and, in an election year where financial malfeasance has become a critical issue, it could not have arrived at a more apt time. The major difficulty with “Billions” is the same as with so many other series on this network: finding someone to root for. In a world that is filled with antiheroes, do we really need another cable series with two more? But the acting is good and the writing is acid sharp. This could be the best original to come from Showtime since “Masters of Sex”. The question being, can it stay this interesting?
My score: 3.75 stars.