"Billions," Showtime's new big-money drama starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti, could have been brainy and Wall Street Journal-y, like "The Big Short" and "Too Big to Fail." It could have gone deep, with lots of numbers trailed by lots of zeroes, on the morally secular gamesmanship that is high finance. It could have been a wonky procedural hinging on money-nerd talk about hedge funds, insider trading, shorts, and long cons.
But "Billions" just wants to have fun, and that's a good thing.
The show, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., is a visceral, entertaining story that doesn't much bother with the kinds of economic details that send math failures such as myself into paroxysms of self-loathing. It's a shiny New York soap opera, a juicy legal cat-and-mouse intrigue between Giamatti's US attorney and Lewis's hedge-fund giant, and a flood of psychosexual and class-based tensions including some cable-scaled BDSM and sexual massage. Like "Ray Donovan," "Billions" is addictive, bold, amusing, well-crafted, and rather facile, too.
Watching the six episodes sent for review, I was reminded of the huge differences between pay-cable biggies Showtime and HBO, which are so frequently grouped together. On HBO, I imagine, "Billions" would move slower, so that we could think carefully about each step in the battle between the two men, each of whose moral orientation would be finely shaded and clear. On Showtime, the pace is brisk, often because the writers don't want you to think carefully. The goal is to entertain, not to challenge, and there are hyped-up and over-baked moments in "Billions" that bring the absurdities of "Empire" to mind. On Showtime, you sometimes wonder if the characters are meant to be morally complex or if there are just continuity issues getting crunched up in the fast editing.
Essentially, "Billions" is about a clash of titanic egos — male egos, be forewarned. The women on the show are interesting but inevitably secondary to the central contest between the two leads. Testosterone fuels the drama, as it turns Theodore Dreiser's classic "The Financier" trilogy about men and money into lively pop culture. Giamatti's Chuck Rhoades is fixated on bringing down Lewis's Bobby Axelrod, a self-made billionaire who considers himself a man of the people — unless those people wronged him, in which case he is a force of vengeance who never loses. Rhoades desperately wants to go after Axelrod for trading violations, to prove to the media and to himself that he's not a pushover when it comes to Wall Street excesses. But he's waiting to accumulate enough solid evidence to win, and trying to turn Axelrod's people into moles to gather intel.
Rhoades is a stickler for the rules. In one sequence, he fully loses it on a neighbor who repeatedly fails to pick up after his dog. Axelrod, also known as "Axe," prefers to play outside the rules, as he sits in a Zen-styled office building that belongs in Silicon Valley. Rhoades is from old Fifth Avenue money; Axe grew up poor, and he stays loyal to the figures of his childhood, including the owner of a pizza joint. Axe is obsessed with loyalty, and if you cross him, no matter how slightly, you pay. He and his wife, Lara (Malin Akerman), have a strong, loving partnership, and in one scene we see her fiercely threaten a 9/11 widow who may not be on her husband's side. Together, they seek nouveau riche perfection, buying university degrees and getting their name on important buildings.
There's an odd twist in the "Billions" premise that seems forced to me. Rhoades's wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), just happens to work for her husband's nemesis, Axelrod, as an in-house performance coach. That kind of coincidence is hard to pull off — "Breaking Bad" did it by making meth dealer Walt's brother-in-law a DEA agent, but that was an exception. Would a US Attorney's wife really ever work for one of his targets, who may be an epic scofflaw? That said, Siff is great to watch, as she coaxes the alpha out of her charges as they play the market. Her job as office therapist and psychological fixer is fascinating, and I'm hoping we'll see more of it as the show progresses.
Created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and "Too Big to Fail" author Andrew Ross Sorkin, "Billons" builds tension by keeping the two leads apart most of the time. We jump back and forth between their stories, yearning to see the fireworks when Giamatti and Lewis finally go mano a mano. Each represents a different side of the American Dream, and the idea of them tangling firsthand is something to look forward to.
Both actors are, as expected, very watchable — compelling, if not subtle. Giamatti does a lot of his trademark huffing and puffing, as he tries to prove that his wealthy background isn't compromising his professional integrity. Lewis throws a lot of charismatic and enigmatic glances around, keeping his cards close to his chest. He's a bit miscast as a scrappy guy who becomes a symbol of new money; aristocracy seems to be written into the very shape of his face. But like the show as a whole, he's captivating despite the flaws.
Starring Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti, Maggie Siff, Malin Akerman, Toby Leonard Moore, David Costabile, Terry Kinney.
On Showtime, Sunday, 10 p.m.