If “Bonfire of the Vanities” wasn’t already taken, it would make the perfect title for Showtime’s new drama about two rich and powerful men who engage in what looks like a seasons-long pissing contest. Instead it’s called Billions, which also describes Damian Lewis’ hedgefund king Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, a man of the people in the press, but just as obnoxious as his name suggests behind closed doors. Attempting to bring him down on security fraud and more is U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), who kicks off an elaborate cat and mouse game between the two men that plays out across the press, in boardrooms, and occasionally, in hot tubs.
Superficially, Axe and Rhoades are opposites. Axe makes questionable deals and relishes in his wealth, while Rhoades is rigid in his sense of duty and in his quest to not let off the rich who think they can buy their own justice. Axe is suave and handsome, while Rhoades is pudgy and furtive. But the two men are set up as mirrored foils — both are rebelling against their upbringing (Axe, who came from nothing, and Rhoades who grew up around white collar criminals he now prosecutes), both are bullies, both have two children, and both have tough spouses who work with them as equal partners (Malin Akerman as Lara Axelrod, and Maggie Siff as Wendy Rhoades). They also both use their cunning to find ways to never, ever, back down from a fight.
The key to Billions’ story, though, is the issue of masculinity — what it means, why it matters, and the power our society affords to those who wield it like a sword (phallically-intended or not). To start, Axe teaches his sons a lesson about marking territory when his untrained dog lets loose on the living room table leg (Axe regards the act with respect). Later, after the dog gets neutered, Axe sees it as a personal affront, and it spurs him to make a dickish decision that taunts Rhoades (who tempers his bullish public behavior by engaging in sexual bondage and submission) into bringing legal action against him.
That masculine focus pervades Axe’s hedge fund culture, too, where his traders act like eight year olds on a sugar rush, yet tossing out enough profanities to make a sailor blush. But there’s nothing clever in the construction of the foul language (like, say, on Veep) — it’s just crass. “It’s gonna pop like a virgin cherry on prom night,” one smug trader (a women, notably) says to her her cohorts. They laugh and applaud her for being one of the boys. But honestly, who would want to be?
Except of course that they make oodles and oodles of money. It’s infuriating and feels wholly unjust, and is one of the only reasons to root for Rhoades, which he knows. For all of his flaws, Axe is dynamic, and it’s not just important that the public loves him — viewers need to as well. It’s why he doesn’t engage in the sophomoric behaviors of his workers, doesn’t cheat on his wife, and brings up his hard-scrabble upbringing at pertinent times. He’s no saint, and he can still be extremely immature, petty, and vindictive, but as Rhoades explains to his colleague Bryan (Toby Leonard Moore), Axe is like Butch and Sundance, and the U.S. Attorney’s office is the posse. “I always rooted for Butch and Sundance,” Bryan says. “So did I, we all did,” Rhoades replies. “But that’s not who we are.”
The only grown up, it seems, in this whole deal is Rhoades’ wife Wendy, who also happens to work for Axe in the integral company roll of counsellor and motivator. Both men need her, but are occasionally suspicious given her position. She is stern and fair with both, but treats them like boys who need to be mothered, loved, and chastised in turn (she should really be the star of her own show). Wendy grounds what is otherwise an unrelentingly male-focused story, but she’s also a player. And that, ultimately, is what makes Billions interesting: the twisty games, augmented by excellent performances from its cast. The writing can lack originality, good pacing, and subtlety, but Lewis, Giamatti, Siff, and everyone else make up for it.
Though six episodes into the series, Billions’ still doesn’t have an emotional core, nor does it judge the obscene excesses of many of its players (I felt compelled to watch all of the episodes, continuing to think I would quit but then curious to see if I was missing some big reveal that never came). It is really just a quiet and slow chess match between two men whose fates we aren’t tied to. That leaves us free to enjoy the machinations without being beholden to the side of the crooks or the posse, although it also doesn’t leave us with any stakes. But the fun, perhaps, is in being a spectator. “A good matador doesn’t try to kill a fresh bull,” Rhoades says. “You wait until he’s been stuck a few times.”
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Billions premieres Sunday, January 17th on Showtime.