This review is spoiler-free.
I really thought we were done with TV pilots. With the Netflixization of TV, binge-watching and just the general consensus that one episode is not enough to judge a series, TV pilots seemed like they were going the way of the Palm Pilots.
Now here comes Showtime’s Billions, a promising TV show with a promising premise that’s nearly ruined by a weak pilot. There is no reason why Billions first episode should be called Pilot or have to paint in the broad thesis statement-y strokes of a CSI spin-off’s premiere episode. It’s on pay cable for one and it has an absolute murderers’ row of talent involved. TV and movie stars like Oscar-nominee Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis (Homeland), Malin Ackerman (Watchmen) and Maggie Siff (Sons of Anarchy) are featured in front of the camera with show runners Brian Koppelman, David Levien (both of Rounders) and Andrew Ross Sorkin (author of Too Big To Fail) behind it. Just greenlight that shit, Showtime! And eventually they did for a 12-episode first season but not before forcing an introductory series premiere that exists more to reassure TV executives the central premise is strong instead of to entertain audiences.
Billions tells the story of multi-billionaire hedge-fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Lewis) and the U.S. District Attorney (Giamatti) trying to indict him for insider trading and any other less than legal shenanigans he may be partaking in. The world of Billions is a world in which a New York Times reporter interrupts a press conference for high-level drug convictions with “Yeah but what are you doing about financial crime!” and the U.S. District Attorney knows he’s got to get to work. Ackerman stars as Axelrod’s wife, Lara, while Siff plays Chuck’s wife and in-house therapist for Axelrod’s firm, Axe Capital.
The aforementioned pilot is a disappointment precisely because it’s so pilot-y. Both Axelrod and Rhoades are the broadest possible versions of their characters and too much emphasis is placed on the black hat/white hat dichotomy between them. It never wastes the opportunity to hold the audience’s hand through something we can navigate through just fine on our own. Characters also have a bewildering habit of using their own professions as an interjection, with Chuck Rhoades seemingly punctuating ever sentence with “I’m the U.S. Attorney for Christ’s sake” as if we could forget.
The pilot is frustrating for two reasons. One is that it is currently the only episode available to viewers to watch online in advance of the show’s premiere. The second is that the other five episodes Showtime made available to critics range from good to outright excellent.
Despite the weak premiere, however, the first season of Billions continues Showtime’s three-year streak of producing a worthwhile drama.*
*Masters of Sex in 2013, The Affair in 2014 and now Billions in 2015. Homeland and Shameless debuted in 2011 so it would be a five-year streak if they didn’t effectively take 2012 off.
Episodes two through six of Billions are successes because they transcend the title of the show. Billions is certainly about billions of dollars but more than that it’s about people. The money on Billions operates almost as a setting instead of an antagonist or a plot point. In that way, currency on Billions isn’t unlike zombies on The Walking Dead.* The zombies are the namesake of the show but they aren’t the antagonist, they are simply the environment in which the protagonists and antagonists must operate. The money on Billions creates the environment but the people are well, people. They’re people of great skill and a thirst for power, action and influence. So they operate in the finance industry where all the power, action and influence in the world derives from.
*Fitting because a Walking Dead alum, Jeffrey DeMunn, pops up as Chuck’s father.
Due to superb acting across the board, the characters on Billions hit the sweet spot for drama between characterisations and actual living human beings. Bobby Axelrod and Chuck Rhoades have suspiciously appropriate names for their occupations. Bobby gets to go back “Axe” and name his firm the ominous sounding “Axe Capital.” Beneath the simplistic buddy-comedy “Axe and Rhoades” names, however, lie fairly complex individuals. Bobby at times is the stereotypical billionaire playboy with an unquenchable thirst for opulence, but he never comes anywhere near a Jordan Belfort parody thanks to an underlying sweetness Lewis brings to the character. Giamatti also simultaneously plays to and against type as the hard-charging District Attorney from a financial background who also has some, let’s say sexually submissive, tendencies.
Also refreshing, are the relationships at play. The Axe and Rhoades dynamic is the classic dramatic “we’re not so different, you and I” foil yet it somehow feels as fresh as ever. Perhaps because it’s so inexplicable. Multiple times it’s alluded to that Axe and Rhoades have just hated each other from moment one with no inciting incident. It’s as though they know they are just players on opposites of the board in a cosmic game. They’re equally as competent, and equally as beholden to the world of the dollar – they’re just on opposite sides of the law. Cops and robbers with excel spreadsheets.
Perhaps the biggest difference in quality between the pilot and the rest of the series has to do with the female leads and how they inform the relationships they’re involved in. One could be forgiven for thinking that the tremendously capable Siff and Ackerman were being wasted based on the pilot. In subsequent episodes, however, both actresses (particularly Siff) are given plenty of opportunities to shine. Billions is an unexpectedly adept representation of modern marriages on television. Both Chuck and Wendy (Siff) and Bobby and Lara occasionally fight, struggle to raise their kids and support each other but their bonds are presented as strong and absolute rather than just dramatic tools for writers to play with. Chuck and Wendy face an issue of a conflict of interest since she works for the company he’s investigating. A lesser show would used that as an opportunity for high-wire espionage and drama. Billions prefers to plumb it in a more human way.
Billions feels like its been in the works for a while. It uses September 11 as a dramatic shorthand frequently, with Bobby being the only analyst from his firm to have survived the attacks on that day and other, subtler reminders lingering like a “Never Forget” magnet on the District Attorney’s office’s refrigerator. That combined with the ongoing undercurrent of corporate greed threaten to turn it into a kind of greatest hits of shitty things that happened in the early to mid-2000’s. Thanks to some tremendous character-work, however, Billions is more timeless than it could have been. Currency is always changing, the value of money is always inflating but the one indomitable law of the of the world remains the same: Cash rules everything around me. C.R.E.A.M. Get the money. Dollar dollar bill, y’all. Billions is the story of boundless greed and accumulation, so really: the story of people.