Analysis

The boring savagery of Showtime's Billions

The new series promises an in-depth exploration of masculinity of power, but fails to dig below the surface

Here are some quotes from Billions, Showtime's whip-'em-out-and-measure-'em new drama about a couple of jerks butting heads on the legal and political battlefield of the financial market:

"My cholesterol's high enough. Don't butter my ass."

"A good matador doesn't try to kill a fresh bull. You wait until he's been stuck a few times."

"My father always told me that 'mercy' was a word pussies used when they couldn't take the pain."

And that's just in the first 30 minutes of the pilot.

Billions is overloaded with this kind of dialogue — like someone loaded a bazooka with discarded material from Glenngarry Glen Ross and blasted it all over a stack of TV scripts. But while the series, like its protagonists, has all the trappings of greatness, it never goes deep enough to justify how impressed it is with itself.

Screenwriting gurus used to argue that the characters needed to be likable. A decade-plus of beloved antihero dramas — The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, et al. — has proven that advice limiting and stupid. But there is a general rule of drama that still holds: The characters have to be interesting.

Both of Billions' protagonists fail that test. In one corner, we have Bobby "Axe" Axelrod, a bootstraps-to-billionaire hedge fund manager played by Homeland alum Damian Lewis. Bobby, unlike many of his fellow Wall Street cronies, has managed to avoid widespread hatred by carefully modulating his own public image — a fact that sticks in the craw of his rival, U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades. Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti, is utterly obsessed with taking Bobby down, for reasons Billions never quite manages to justify. Later episodes flesh out the allies and enemies on both sides.

What Billions lacks is a reason to care about any of this. In theory, there are billions of dollars on the line — not to mention the U.S. economy. In practice, the conflict in Billions essentially boils down to the needless war of egos between a couple of boring rich guys.

Lewis, at the very least, manages to find some shades to Bobby, humanizing him without downplaying the good and bad sides of his enormous ego. But Giamatti gives his strongest performances when he's asked to be quiet and subtle, and Billions mostly just gives him an endless array of grandiose speeches to sputter out.

In its sharper moments, Billions treats this macho posturing — which eventually trickles down to Bobby and Chuck's underlings — as a desperate performance. The characters repeatedly quote Goodfellas, in tacit acknowledgement that the ego-driven warfare of Wall Street isn't all that different than the ego-driven warfare of the mafia. And the sudsy nonsense of the overarching narrative becomes more interesting in the rare moments when one of the two protagonists is forced to confront the fragility of his own position.

There's a better and more interesting show hidden within Billions, and it emerges whenever Maggie Siff's Wendy takes the screen. Wendy is the sole character with a foot in both Bobby and Chuck's camps; she works as an in-house performance coach for the former, and is married to the latter. A TV show about the therapy-style sessions conducted by Wendy — the one time when these Masters of the Universe drop the act and express their own vulnerabilities — could be fascinating. But the show merely feints in that direction before getting back to its conference rooms and private jets.

The best thing I can say about Billions is that it improves. Showtime sent six episodes of Billions to critics for advance review — a full half of the show's first season — with an earnest request to watch them all before writing any kind of review. That's an unusually high number of episodes to judge, and it makes me suspect that Showtime knew the pilot was a dog. Later episodes revisit and recontextualize some of the pilot's more shallow flourishes. Take Chuck's predilection for kinky bondage play, which literally opens the series. In an attention-grabbing cold open, a dominatrix shoves a lit cigarette into his chest, before urinating upon him. In the context of that first episode, it's a premium cable stunt designed to shock the audience into attentiveness. But later episodes elaborate on Chuck's particular fetish — where it originates, how he indulges it, and how it fits into his marriage — in a way that feels surprisingly and refreshingly mature.

In theory, this is how every TV show works: You introduce a simple premise, then spend the following episodes expanding upon it, introducing new depth and new developments. At the half-season point, there's enough soap-opera intrigue to fuel a cottage industry of TV recaps. But while Billions is both glitzy and propulsive enough to sustain some attention, it's hard to argue that it's really worth the time. The best thing about the peak TV era is that there's a never-ending list of quality shows to watch. Is it really worth spending any time and thought on a show that hits the mark by aiming low?

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