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TV Review: ‘Billions’

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

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

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