Of the incoming batch of mid-season shows, Showtime’s new financial malfeasance drama ‘Billions’ features a couple of powerhouse actors and arrives surrounded by a lot of buzz and acclaim. This type of series really ought to be right in my wheelhouse. Why, then, does it leave me so cold?
The pilot episode opens with Paul Giamatti tied up and gagged on the floor in his underwear. Although I suppose we’re meant to wonder if he’s been kidnapped, it looks more like an S&M thing. Sure enough, an unseen dominatrix burns his chest with a cigarette and tells him, “You’re in need of correction, aren’t you?”
Ooh, I get it. That’s a loaded line of dialogue with a double meaning. Because this is a show about the financial industry and market corrections and things of that nature. Clever.
Then the dominatrix pees on him, just to clue you in that this is going to be a trashy soap opera too. Hrmm…
Next we see him, we’re officially introduced to Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades, the U.S. Attorney for New York. He’s a powerful man with a reputation as a crusader for cleaning up the financial sector with an unblemished 81-0 track record for white collar prosecutions. He no doubt also has ambitions to parlay this into higher political office in the future.
An SEC representative with whom he has a contentious relationship barges into Chuck’s office to inform him that he’s investigating three small firms for insider trading and wants Chuck to prosecute. Chuck is wary, especially when he learns that all three firms have ties to Axe Capital, a major power-player run by billionaire rock star hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). If Chuck goes up against Axelrod and loses, it would be a humiliating loss. On the other hand, if he could actually bring down the great and powerful Bobby Axelrod, that would be a major career booster. For now, Chuck tells the SEC guy to screw off until he can bring back solid evidence.
It turns out that Chuck has another reason to hesitate. His wife Wendy (Maggie Siff from ‘Sons of Anarchy’) works for Axe Capital as the company shrink. Unlike your usual dispassionate psychologist, the crux of Wendy’s job seems to be psyching up poorly-performing stock traders into embracing their alpha dog qualities and dicking over whomever they need to dick over to get their numbers up. (Gee, I wonder what she’d be like in bed…?)
When we finally meet Bobby, he’s exactly the sort of smug, Type-A, master-of-the-universe cocky douchebag you expect him to be. His wife Lara (Malin Akerman) is a stone-cold bitch. They proudly raise their kids to be super-competitive and manipulative.
At first, Chuck appears to have daddy issues. His father (Jeffrey DeMunn, formerly Dale on ‘The Walking Dead’) is a bigshot lawyer who tries to pressure Chuck into being lenient with a family friend named Skip, whom Chuck is prosecuting for embezzlement. Not only does Chuck stand up to his father and shoot down the deal, he makes a point of talking about this in a press conference when he’s accused of being soft on Axe Capital. Later, we’ll learn that the whole thing was orchestrated by the father to make his son look incorruptible. They actually have a very good relationship. (When Chuck receives news that Skip has committed suicide, he feels bad about it for around 15 seconds.)
Characters in the show toss out a lot of financial gibberish that’s extremely hard to follow. Everyone speaks in double-talk. It’s implied that one of Bobby’s traders has inside information about a company called Superior Automotive. When questioned about his certainty on the intel, he says, “I am not uncertain,” and that’s considered sufficient to proceed.
The episode has a subplot about Bobby wanting to buy an obscenely expensive beach house. Everyone warns him against this, because it would bring the wrong sort of attention his way for reasons I don’t really understand. Even Chuck tips him off to let it go, but that turns out to be a ploy. Chuck just wanted to see if he could prod Bobby’s ego into buying the house anyway to show everyone else up. Sure enough, it works.
Bobby has a secret phone that he uses to set up a covert basement meeting with an FBI contact, who tips him off with information about a business rival. Bobby leaks this to a reporter.
The episode ends with confirmation that Chuck’s wife Wendy was the dominatrix from the opening scene. He’s not cheating on her after all.
Episode Verdict / Grade: C+
I’m not entirely certain why I haven’t responded to this series. It just hasn’t done a lot for me so far. It strikes me as being a big exercise in self-importance with a couple of showboat actors glowering and yelling at each other a lot. There’s not really anyone here to identify with or root for. Chuck is a self-righteous prick and Bobby is a sociopath with a god complex.
I don’t quite buy the supposed realism of the financial or political wheeling-and-dealing (a lot of it strikes me as writerly BS), and the soapy elements aren’t juicy or blackly comic enough to make me care either.
In its setting amongst the One-Percenters and the corporate elite, the show kind of reminds me of the USA Network’s ‘Suits’ – except without any fun or any characters I enjoy spending time with. As a Showtime series, this one’s likely to have more boobs on display, but on the whole I’d rather just watch ‘Suits’.
With that said, perhaps the show just needs a little more time to click. I’ll give it one more episode and see how I feel.