By Collin Lotter | @CLotter64
The Clash of the New York City Titans or perhaps the Battle of the Billionaires has been played out via television or film time and time again on every different network. So when Showtime launched the hyper promotion whirlwind of their next venture, Billions, many of us apathetically claimed that we would tune in. I was no different than all the skeptics, even with my fanfare towards Damian Lewis’ television roles in the past such as Major Winters in Band of Brothers or Sergeant Nicholas Brody in Homeland. On top of that, anything that Paul Giamatti is attached to is usually going to get a sample from me. Unexpectedly, the movie Arbitrage with Richard Gere had been one of my favorite movies in 2012 and this show seemed to resemble it in more ways than one with the familiar Manhattan backdrop.
The pilot episode was well-made and served its purpose to introduce the cast of characters and the backgrounds from which the white-collar battle will be forged. Although, I would be lying if I said that it particularly captivated me and had me salivating for a second episode. Quite frankly, it was very “meh” but I enjoyed the acting and the relationship between Giamatti’s character Chuck Rhoades and his wife Wendy (Maggie Siff). Wendy is in a compromising position, employed as the in-house performance coach at Axe Capital, and thus is a trusted confidant of the ambitious hedge fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Lewis). This irritates Chuck to no end as the main criminal he wants to bring down for the United States Attorney’s office in NYC employs and compensates his wife. It also sets Chuck’s manhunt back that Axelrod is one of the most beloved power figures in the city. He donates huge to the New York Police and Fire Departments, the arts scene in Manhattan, and treats his employees and their respective families like his own. Eerily similar to his Homeland persona, you can’t really decide whether to root for or against Damian Lewis as he plays the benevolent villain so well.
As I continued the season in its entirety it was easy to conclude that by no means is this a perfect show. Some of the dialogue is over the top and the scenarios are extremely heightened for dramatic effect. However, I can see why it was such a big success for the Showtime network because in many components it's a lot of fun. Sure, it’s hard to relate to these characters and the top one percent issues they face, but some of that contributes to the fun the show is to watch. Living in Dallas, this is how I envisioned the infamous Mark Cuban/SEC fight from a couple years ago in which I really wanted Cuban to skate free of all insider trading allegations. This show is no different, as in many cases I want Axelrod to get the upper hand on Rhoades along with his defense team. Unlike the previously mentioned Arbitrage, where Gere is a full-fledged villain with so few redeeming qualities, Axelrod is a family man and good to so many people because he came from humble beginnings. He seems loyal unless you give him a reason not to be and he is a genius with how he can twist a personal benefit into a devious act and rationalize it to make it sound philanthropic.
The charm of this show lies in the form of a total guilty pleasure; not because it’s cheaply made and corny, rather, because the allure of it functions as lifestyle porn with fast cars, day trips to Canada to see Metallica perform, McMansions in the Hamptons, and 40-foot yachts spotlighted throughout to woo the viewer. The primary reason to watch Billions is to watch Giamatti and Lewis snarl at each other, then launch long-distance strikes against one another. Chuck, tired of bringing down small-time white-collar criminals, wants a big fish, and Axe is one of the biggest fish of them all. If Chuck can bring down Axe, it will prove he's serious about stopping financial crime. You get caught up in the chase and the constant chess match between them.
For all of its flaws (most notable to me being that it is a pretty hollow show in its core, as far as a voice) Billions seems to offer enough to the casual fan. The show doesn't dive into any groundbreaking knowledge regarding politics, economies of scale, or social injustices… it really just displays a billionaire’s empire being threatened by a vengeful attorney with personal implications on the line. The show’s acting perseveres throughout with great performances and banter between Giamatti, Lewis, Siff, and also secondary characters like Lara Axelrod (Malin Akerman as Axe’s wife) and Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore as Chuck Rhoades’ right-hand man). The characters make it fun and worth the viewers’ time and interest. Ultimately, Billions seems like a safe investment for Showtime for the near future.