For the longest time, I couldn't figure out what to make of “Billions,” the new Showtime drama debuting Sunday at 10, starring Damian Lewis as a shady billionaire hedge fund trader and Paul Giamatti as the U.S. attorney looking to bring him down.
It has two strong leading men (and did a nice job casting Malin Akerman and Maggie Siff as their respective spouses), and in Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who wrote “Rounders” together) and Andrew Ross Sorkin (who wrote “Too Big to Fail” and knows Wall Street as well as any reporter on the planet), it has a trio of creators who know how to write intimately about both the super-wealthy and gamblers, and the way that the former often have to act like the latter.
“Billions” has all the bonafides. Yet as I watched one episode after another, I found myself wondering why I was meant to care about any of it. Why was Giamatti's Chuck Rhoades so hell-bent on busting Lewis's Bobby “Axe” Axelrod? Why was Axe supposed to be so much worse than your average titan of the market? How much exposition would I have to sit through to appreciate the stakes of the moves Axe's fund was making in any given episode? There was a lot of swagger and even more lifestyle porn (even Chuck comes from money and resides in a lavish brownstone), but there didn't seem to have a compelling reason for the show itself to exist, or for this to be its particular story. (Though there's an interesting show embedded inside “Billions” about how Siff's Wendy Rhoades works as in-house shrink for Axe and his team: an analyst for analysts.)
And then, as I got to the end of the fourth of six episodes Showtime sent to critics, I found myself being drawn in by it all – not because the show had gotten any better at articulating why Chuck is risking his career to wage a cold war against New York's most beloved rich guy (other than some mild resentment over Wendy working for Axe), but because I had watched so much of it already that I couldn't help feeling curious about what happened next.
It was TV drama Stockholm Syndrome: spend enough time with almost any show, and you start to see its point of view.
Now, “Billions” isn't a terrible drama. It has solid craftsmanship, and a collection of excellent actors, even if they're not always used to their best. (Lewis' American accent, which has long been among the most convincing of any Brit actor working in TV, starts to hit its limits as he's asked to deliver one long monologue after another, most of them involving Axe's rags-to-riches backstory.) Yet the best argument for its continued existence is the fact that it already exists. Stick around for a bit – and this cast (which also includes cable drama Hey It's That Guy! David Costabile as Axe's goatee-twirling COO and Toby Leonard Moore and Condola Rashad as two of Chuck's lieutenants) alone invites that – and there's just enough story to keep pulling you along, even if I couldn't tell you after six hours why Axe is supposed to be the worst of all these filthy rich dudebros, nor what the stakes are if Chuck (who has his eye on higher office) fails to bag him.
“He's an icon of the wealth of our age, and he is a fraud!” Chuck snarls at one point. But much of the episodic storytelling is driven by what Axe and his traders are doing for the fund – independently of whatever Chuck is up to, whereas all of his plots either involve him chasing Axe or being annoyed that he isn't chasing Axe – and more often than not, Axe is presented as a kind of vigilante hedge fund trader: he may break a law or five, but almost everyone he hurts is presented as an aristocratic boob in need of a good humbling. Some moral ambiguity is fine (if not mandatory) on a cable drama, but “Billions” seems less ambiguous about what side it's on than simply uncertain.
Giamatti is at his most vein-throbbingly exasperated. In one episode, Chuck dresses down a man who didn't scoop his dog's poop with a hyperbolic lecture suggesting that he's everything wrong with America; in another, after learning the identity of a man who can help him put Axe in prison, he snarls, “I want this motherfucker's genome mapped! I want to put him on the rack and stretch him!” Lewis, meanwhile, ambles through scenes in expensive hoodies and t-shirts, a smug grin on his face concealing whatever's really going through Axe's head. (Even he doesn't always seem to know why he's doing things.)
Perhaps because her job involves untangling feelings her patients can't articulate for themselves, the Wendy scenes have a clarity the rest of “Billions” lacks. It's a sharp turn for Siff, evoking the toughness she brought to “Mad Men” as Rachel Menken rather than her perpetual victimhood as Tara on “Sons of Anarchy.”
In the first episode (which Showtime has already put online), Axe thanks Wendy for saving him from “making a huge mistake for dick-measuring purposes.” But there's a sense that this is the prime motivator for what most of the show's characters are doing, whether they're making aggressive displays of their wealth and/or power, or quoting movies about the kind of gangsters that Axe's traders fancy themselves to be. (“Goodfellas” comes up often, and when one of them thinks he's out-toughed Chuck and his deputies, he boasts, “I'm Keyser Soze, motherfucker!”)
I don't doubt that proving his is bigger than the next guy's is a guiding force for some of the guys in this business, maybe many of them, and even for some of their opponents in law enforcement. But it's a shallow motivation for a show that, even with its slick title character and all the ostentatious displays of his wealth, seems to be aspiring to something more complex.
But I put in the six hours, and it was just enough to make me curious to see where the story goes next, and to see if all the talent involved in front of and behind the camera can coalesce into something more than another glib Showtime series about a fixer with a great wardrobe. Someone who's smarter about money than me might warn me about the sunk cost fallacy, and suggest that continued spending of my time won't bring me any closer to a reward. For now, though, I'm just invested enough to keep going, even if I doubt I'd have been had Showtime only sent two or three episodes.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org