This review contains spoilers.
The chief problem with Billions early on in its run is that it seems to be in love with its own pay cable television-ness. Characters are needlessly vulgar, scenes that don’t need to be sexualised are and it occupies a dreamworld in which the most important thing to the average Joe is white-collar financial crime. At one point in YumTime, Chuck trades a case involving the attempted bombing of the Statue of Liberty to the Eastern U.S. Attorney District to preserve a case against Pete Decker – a mid-level stockbroker at a large firm. If Billions were set in Gotham City, news about the Joker blowing up hospitals would appear on the 8th page of the newspaper, while an Op-Ed about the Wayne families excessive wealth would be A1 every day.
The easy armchair psychoanalyst move would be to attribute these growing pains to the showrunners’ relative inexperience. Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin are all tremendously capable writers but they A. are used to different media from television like movies and books and B. occupy a world in which white collar fraud is the sexiest crime in the world.
For pop culture TV nerds (which is a truly enormous bloc of people that does not seems to include Koppelman, Levien and Ross Sorkin) a character monologuing about “ass to mouth” which eventually becomes a metaphor for his sadistic human resources practices is no longer shocking or interesting. Hell, Clerks 2 back in 2005 had the definitive “ass to mouth” if it’s possible that such a thing exists. That’s not to mention any of the other dozens of cable TV shows who have used colorful dialogue to much better effect. Billions has made the mistake early on of assuming it’s the first hour-TV drama to speak blue and carry a big stick. It isn’t.
Having seen the first six episodes of the season, however, I can happily report that the showrunners’ talent does eventually begin to adapt to the new-to-them medium of television (next week’s is actually my favorite of the bunch). And Showtime clearly agrees, having recently picked up a season two. But this isn’t a review of the entire first season that eventually grows into something interesting and worthwhile. This is a review of the third episode ever from relative television greenhorns…and it has plenty of flaws.
“YumTime” for the reasons described above i.e. needlessly vulgar, et. all. For the second week in a row, it uses sex as vehicle to drive plot, which is just a bummer. The opening scene features June, the widow of one of Axe’s old co-workers who died in 9/11 having sex with what turns out to be a book publisher. June has written a book about her experiences post-9/11 and which naturally features a chapter on some shady dealings from Axe*.
*Exactly what that is, we are not privy to but it am I crazy or does the show seem to be inferring that Axe had some inside knowledge to avoid Manhattan on September 11? Maybe I’m just getting confused from Damian Lewis’ days on Homeland.
Lara receives word about the upcoming book and eventually gets an early copy of it. She knows that it can never see the light of day so she begins a stealth campaign to make June’s life miserable to remove the chapter. This includes the time-honored traditions of getting her appointments at yoga classes cancelled, revoking her golf club membership and making sure her son can’t get into Stanford. None of this really works dramatically. Cable dramas that feature two dudes fighting it out for supremacy can sometimes embarrass themselves when it comes to trying to assert “but the wives also help!” and Billions in this instance is no exception. Fucking around with a yoga schedule as war? What, was sabotaging a batch of cookies for a PTO bake sale too much or something?
Shows like Game Of Thrones by and large do an excellent job with their female characters because they’re able to operate well within the oppressive gender roles prescribed to them in a Medieval society. The fact that Billions is doing the same thing in 2016 is reflective of both its and admittedly society’s laziness. Still, mission accomplished for Lara and June backs down and Billions can rest a few weeks before it has to think of something interesting for Lara to do again.
YumTime also seems pre-occupied by the concept of small victories, which could be interesting in a show about billions and billions of dollars but in this context just seems like the writers still experimenting with their storytelling and trying to nail down the vagaries of episodic storytelling. Chuck strolls down the road and sees a man not pick up his dog’s poop. He dresses down the man viciously, making him pick the shit up with his barehands to throw it away. By the end of the episode, the man is walking his dog, plastic bag in tow. Similarly, during the aforementioned “ass to mouth” therapy session with Wags, Wendy learns that a broker at Axe is going to be berated and tortured into quitting for having the audacity to interview at another firm. Wendy is able to convince the broker to accept the other job offer and by the end of the episode invests $250,000 in that firm. Small victories. Both seem like less of a complete dramatic thought than a TV writing exercise. And honestly: that’s perfectly fine, this early on in a show’s run.
It’s fine, especially since Billions has seemed to have mastered a necessary TV storytelling trick. The “x of the week” plotline. Billions is still struggling to nail down the right tone and tell the story it wants to tell but the YumTime plot line of the episode’s title is actually fairly great and compelling. Axe wants to invest in the YumTime bakery company he knows from childhood. After he gets his foot in the door, he exerts his influence to get the ineffective C.E.O. and a board member who happens to be Chuck’s father’s mistress fired.
The YumTime storyline is where Billions shows its greatest promise. One is from a pure entertainment standpoint. The nature of finance and stocks means that any weekly storyline could see Axe playing around with any industry or company, provided its publicly traded. And the machinations that Axe undergoes to bring down a C.E.O. and get his way is undeniably compelling. Equally as compelling is what it means for Bobby Axelrod, the character. Axe says he’s investing in YumTime because he believes in restoring the company to its original recipe and integrity. He has a personal, nostalgic investment. But it also can’t be a coincidence that that personal investment happens to coincide with a sound financial investment along with the opportunity to embarrass Chuck’s father.
Money touches everything so theoretically there is nowhere that Billions cannot go. “YumTime” shows that at least understands this, even if its a little too pleased with itself being on a nudie cable channel.
Read Alec’s review of the previous episode, Naming Rights, here.