TV Review: ‘Billions’

Billions renewed season 2
Courtesy Showtime

Billions” won’t be for everyone, but for a substantial number of viewers, this frisky Wall Street drama will be hard to resist.

If you are immune to the many charms of Paul Giamatti’s work, and the endless ways in which his “Billions” character displays intelligence and irritation through a series of perfectly deployed glares, this tale of high-powered hedge-fund players and the lawyers they battle may not be up your alley. Giamatti plays Chuck Rhoades, a well-to-do U.S. Attorney for New York who feels compelled to rein in Wall Street excesses, with Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod, a hotshot mega-billionaire who can’t resist throwing his might and money around in ways that make for bad P.R., and bring scrutiny from law enforcement.

That description raises the question of whether you’ll be able to work up any sympathy for the one-percenters locked in combat in this slick series. Many regular folks who’ve witnessed the frightening fallout of some of Wall Street’s high-stakes games may find that the subject matter itself is a dealbreaker. Just about every character in “Billions” has, at the very least, a trust fund and a few million in the bank — but many have substantially more. Whatever their headaches, the day-to-day lives of these hedge-fund guys, especially Bobby, make Don Draper’s lifestyle look like a monk’s.

And it is a guys’ enclave. Especially in its first few episodes, “Billions” presents one of the whitest and most male casts in recent memory, which is notable in part because TV has become markedly more diverse in the past few years. In the first six episodes, there are a couple of scenes featuring a female trader whose boldness is regarded very differently from that of her male peers, and there are grindingly obvious — and not always successful — attempts to give the women in the narrative something to do other than work for or be married to the men. But going in, a viewer has to accept that this is yet another cable drama in which women and people of color don’t get to occupy much of the prime story real estate (and the fact that the wives are not obstructionist nags is not as much of an accomplishment as the show’s creatives appear to think it is).

Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) is both Chuck’s wife and Bobby’s shrink, which means she gets at least a modicum of screen time; it also means she needs a stiff drink or three at the end of every day. Siff is great, but so far she supplies grace notes in what is essentially a mano-a-mano struggle between Chuck and Bobby. Appendage-measuring is the predominant parlor game here, and despite capable work from Siff and Malin Akerman, who plays Bobby’s steely wife, it’s hard to see that changing any time soon. 

But enough with the caveats: “Billions” is shamelessly entertaining. Don’t come to it looking for an in-depth commentary on the stratification of American society or the pitfalls of late-stage capitalism. This is a generally well-crafted soap opera about rich people, one that crackles with energy and insider knowledge of its well-heeled territory and the narcissistic insiders who live there. The series is so packed with smartly observed details and terrific performances that it’s easy to think of it as a more macho, linear version of “The Good Wife”: Instead of observing the complicated professional lives and personal vendettas roiling various law firms in Chicago, the Showtime drama revolves around financiers and the tough New York prosecutors looking to knock them down a peg or two. For both Rhoades and Axelrod, money is almost an abstraction; it pays for private jets, sure, but it’s usually just a means of keeping score in a game of prestige, power and dominance. 

The most salient fact about “Billions” may be that it’s funny. Sarcastic asides, humorous insults and well-targeted quips are folded into it like truffles in a plate of handmade ravioli. Too many dramas these days, even modestly ambitious ones, mistake plodding glumness and a dour tone for seriousness of intent. But a dash of wit can help make a more serious moment stand out, and can add shading and likability to characters, and even to the targets of the jibes. “Billions” is full of ferociously intelligent, irreverent adults who like what they do, but are self-aware enough to realize how much their personal agendas and professional ambitions intersect and awkwardly collide. When not plotting vengeance like latter-day Lannisters — or reeling off finance lingo that is sometimes a little too dense — they’re able to laugh at their own mistakes as well as at the arrogance and missteps of others.

It’s refreshing to see a drama in which men (and a few women) are shown enjoying the games, the manipulations, the negotiations and even the compromises that make up the greater part of their workdays, which are long but exhilarating in the winning moments. “Billions” regularly strays into predictable areas (what, you expected characters in a Showtime drama not to get erotic massages?). And now and then, it veers into the kind of overwrought melodrama better left to “Empire.” But what often keeps things aloft is the idea that Bobby and Chuck don’t endure their challenging jobs in spite of the difficulties they present, but because of them.

Wherever a viewer stands on Wall Street’s antics, it’s abundantly clear that Lewis and Giamatti are having a ball with this material. Called upon to imbue Bobby with restless swagger and deeper layers of intelligence and even empathy, Lewis turns in some of the best work of his career. The charismatic founder of Axe Capital is a former working stiff who thinks his blue-collar origins and his boldness should allow him to run roughshod over anyone in his path. And yet, despite his entitlement issues, he’s not a one-dimensional blowhard. It’s hard to root for someone who is apparently worth more than entire nations, but Lewis makes it (just barely) possible, by giving Bobby the textured interior life and insecurities of a normal human being (albeit one with brass, well, spheres).

As for Giamatti, he’s a continual delight as Chuck; the actor is able to effortlessly convey intelligence and drive while also making his character’s dry wit and caustic self-awareness vastly entertaining. Bobby and Chuck don’t meet often in person, but each of their rare go-rounds crackles with intensity and gladiatorial energy. When the two alphas are not trading barbs, “Billions” does a decent job of filling out the characters around them, but few of them pull focus from the two men at the show’s center. One standout is David Costabile, who is gloriously foul-mouthed and hilariously mean as Wags, Axelrod’s chief enforcer at Axe Capital.

So “Billions,” the premiere of which is already online, is in the “buy” column for now. If it strays too far into repetition, and if its palpable energy and verve can’t hide a tendency toward predictability — common enough occurrences on soaps about rich people, and on Showtime programs in particular — it’d be easy to dump the show as ruthlessly as Bobby Axelrod excises a poor performer from his portfolio. But in the first half of its season, the lively momentum and diverting character studies of “Billions” offer reasonable dividends for those willing to invest.

TV Review: 'Billions'

(Series; Showtime, Sun. Jan. 17, 10 p.m.)

Production

Filmed in New York.

Crew

Executive producers, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Neil Burger; producers, Amy Kaufman, Perri Kipperman; director, Burger; writers, Koppelman, Levien, Sorkin; camera, Jake Polonsky; production designer, Michael Shaw; costume designer, Eric Daman; editors, Marnee Meyer, Naomi Geraghty, Susan E. Morse; music, Eskimo; casting, Allison Estrin. 60 MIN.

Cast

Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Maggie Siff, Malin Akerman, Toby Leonard Moore, David Costabile, Condola Rashad

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 37

Leave a Reply

37 Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. Rebecca says:

    I just binged the entire two seasons and conclude that it is one of THE best shows I’ve ever seen. Brilliant is putting it mildly! Can’t wait for season three!

  2. tony says:

    i really thought better call saul was my all time favorite in the world — until billions came along — the
    ballsacks these people have and the language is so real —

    every sunday night at 9:00 pm i lock myself in the tv room — and enjoy each moment this show has to
    offer —

    keep up the good work !!

    p.s. i am a writer who enjoys making up stories like this — looking for help with fresh ideas — just email me

  3. tony says:

    never stop filming these episodes — this is the most exciting show ever — this should film atleast
    10 years — its the best thing i have ever seen — ever !!

    best shows of all time — ever — in order —

    1. billions

    2. better call saul

    3. breaking bad

    4. the rest doesnt matter really — does it !!!

  4. Terrible review. Sounds like this writer was looking for diversity instead of substance. If you watch a movie and find yourself counting how many women vs. men or blacks vs. whites the film has, stop watching and go read a book.

  5. So good to read a PC review. I would rather read a review by The Donald then this BS. I love the show and wait for it every Sunday. The writing is crisp , the story just has me on the edge of my seat for the full hour and the acting is top drawer. What more could you ask for , more blacks, maybe a few Mexican gardeners? Reviewer , get real !!

  6. Emile says:

    Lol the comments about diversity. If the show was any more diverse than it is, it wouldn’t be representative of reality. I work in investment banking and it’s 99% white, 99% male.

    • dave b. hayve says:

      “I work in investment banking and it’s 99% white, 99% male”…. Exactly!..and that’s why we had to bail you suckers out a few years ago.

  7. alexdisanti says:

    I love this series. Writing is excellent, actors nail it. I’m already looking forward to the second season!

  8. Howard says:

    Snore snore snore. Ms. Ryan you may be able to occupy readers with some of this nonsense but you cannot occupy Hollywood. Your comments that this show lacks diversity and fails to show women as empowered beings is utterly ridiculous and proves to this reader you have at best scanned some episodes, If that is not the case then you need your head scanned by Maggie Siff. What a horrible job. Is you you Ms. Ryan that might be living vicariously through this article? Suggest you pull up some rewinds of Cagney and Lacey to help balance the inner you.

  9. Great show – period. I wish it a long and prosperous run. Another winner for the Lewis and Giamatti, and it always amazes me when British actors are able to drop their accent and pick up on whatever part of the USA they’re in. Damien Lewis is a master at doing that. In terms of “diversity” – there’s as many black folk on this show- maybe more – as there are proportionally black folk in the NY District Atty’s office and/or Wall St. power brokers. For example one of the main characters is Felicia Rashad’s daughter (forget her name sorry). There are also sado-masochists, Asians, gays, polygamists, and an old Italian Pizza guy. No hispanics in main roles that I can remember. I’m being facetious of course but point is talking about the diversity of the cast is ridiculous, and it’s a ridiculous standard by which to judge this or any premium cable show. Anyway – if you like dramas that unfold like a chess match, with unexpected twists beyond every move – watch Billions. If you like shows where a blue collar protagonist is “putting it to DA MAN” and winning – watch Billions. If you like shots of actual cool places in NYC, the Hamptons, and up the Hudson… watch Billions. You’ll like it more after the first episode, so don’t give up until you’ve watched 2-3. It takes that long to figure out the landscape. Then you’ll be hooked.

  10. kathleen scherich says:

    I want to respond to Maureen Ryan’s commentary about an all white and predominantly male cast. Who cares? How many black and other type friends do you hang out with? Do you count them and make sure your dinner parties are well mixed? Let’s comment on Empire. How many Caucasian folks do they have on it? So just ,…..Stop, just stop counting how many of this and that are on any show and enjoy it. I could not continue to read your column after that lame and out dated comment.

    • joan white says:

      Frankly, looking at that red headed ,red skinned dude(always with at one scene without clothes on) gives me the creeps.PUT YOUR CLOTHES ON!!! There are more over actors on this show than I have seen in a long time.

  11. gregd01 says:

    I really wanted to like Billions but how can I enjoy a show watching unlikable characters? It’s like watching a Democrat presidential campaign debate.
    I’ll watch Better Call Saul and reruns of Homeland until Ray Donovan returns.

  12. MOVIEHIPSTER says:

    Damian Lewis is HOT HOT HOT!! What those in the industry might refer to as “Sex on a stick”! I love the show and can’t wait for more!!

  13. vickigene says:

    I really wanted to like Billions but how can I enjoy a show watching unlikable characters? It’s like watching a Republican presidential campaign debate.
    I’ll watch Better Call Saul and reruns of Homeland until Ray Donovan returns.

  14. Archie says:

    Look forward to the conflict between the two protagonists Not sure who is going to prevail.

    Do we really need to complain about actors of color not having a prominent enough role? Geez, Louise, give us a break with quotas already!

  15. bill says:

    Great critique but the diatribe could have been saved for the end

    • davie says:

      if this better looking billionaire is to hit home with us. then let him take the blame for what stock fools have done. introduce a female mafia character that has billions but makes him pay for what he did to the common man. blow his knee caps out and let the people that have suffered from thses people feel justice. make the hundreads of millions of people find some justice. that is how this show wins.

  16. Bill Krupar says:

    Maggie Siff with Giamattii? Cant wait for more leather scenes!!!

  17. Betty White says:

    Watched the first 2 episodes and have given up on this show. It stinks. Dialogue is stilted and over thought and the characters are over done. Sorry Paul G i love you but no way your character would be married to that hot wife. I work on wall street and this show is a joke. Nothing real about it.

  18. What’s up friends, how is all, and what you wish for to say concerning this piece of writing, in my
    view its really awesome designed for me.

  19. lisasride says:

    Just watched the free preview. Brilliant show. Loved every minute. Perfect cast and the writing is spot on. Visually delightful. My opinion may change as I see more episodes, especially since I can’t imagine having any sympathy for Damian Lewis’ character. But so far, he’s got me hoping he’ll win.

  20. messengerfm says:

    I saw the trailers for this show while watching Homeland. They had me at Damian Lewis. He is a terrific actor and seems perfect for the part. He is just one of those rare actors who is not classically handsome but exudes sex appeal from every pore. Looks like I will be rooting for the bad guy once again!

  21. Gabe says:

    This show will go down as a classic. The cast is truly amazing and the dialogue is beyond reproach. Finally a show that doesn’t feel the need to dumb down for the masses! Thank You

    • kimdebra says:

      Really? You must spend your time watching animated shorts if you think this dialogue is beyond reproach. Even your reply “beyond reproach” is a cliche as the scripts and far from brilliant. Apparently the masses have been dumbed down because you are enthralled with this waste of time. Maybe you need a hobby–or a brain.

  22. Shaun says:

    The fact that the show is overwhelmingly white and male could be seen as a concession to the unfortunate but undeniable reality that the vast majority of the wealth in the US lies in the hands of rich, white men. In that situation, the lack of any diversity may be a comment in itself. The show could improve itself by going into this more explicitly and subtly – for example, what color are the people who are performing the menial tasks in the world that these characters inhabit?

  23. seabelly2015 says:

    I think the show’s a winner. I really liked Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis, but I loved Malin Ackerman and Maggie Siff. The scene where Siff counsels a trader with flagging confidence was amazing, and I laughed out loud at Ackerman’s response to the question “Are you threatening me?” My only gripe has to do with Damian Lewis’s . . . face. I’m thinking they might want to try a lighter touch with the eyeliner and take the color of his eyebrows up a notch or two. He looks like he’s wearing kabuki make-up. Cosmetologists need to treat carefully with the gingers.

  24. Liz McCormack says:

    There is nothing wrong with a show being white and having the main characters being males. It’s refreshing to see a show that isn’t artificially racially balanced to the inth degree. I watched the show and I didn’t notice the women being subjugated in any way. Other than those comments, I agree with most of this review, which is well written.

  25. rbillions says:

    That was a great review. Very well written and right on point. You covered all of my impressions with the pilot. The issue with the predominant white male rich main characters, the great acting, the fact it’s cleaver and humorous. I loved this line: “This is a generally well-crafted soap opera about rich people, one that crackles with energy and insider knowledge of its well-heeled territory and the narcissistic insiders who live there.”

  26. soooFi says:

    The pilot was incredible!!! Had no doubt about it though. Showtime always develops the greatest shows – year after year! But what I love the most about them is how they wholeheartedly champion the projects they believe in, regardless of what’s going on viewership-wise. Like The Borgias a.k.a. one of the greatest shows ever! :D #loveshowtime #majorrespect #NBCtakenoteandstopcancellinggoodshows!!!!

  27. Sam Ace says:

    Very well done. watched the 1st ep. You have my attention showtime…

  28. Denis Colbert says:

    This could be the next Sopranios. Paul Giamatti is great.

  29. Jocelyn Hampton says:

    Damian Lewis is my favorite actor. I will watch anything he is in…anything! He is the most underrated
    artist in this field without question.

More TV News from Variety

Loading