Sometimes all it takes is an image to sell you on a show. Such was the case with Showtime’s new series, Billions. That image, the same one you see as the featured image for this very article, sucked me in for two very good reasons.
First of all, the image features two of my all time favorite actors working in the world today, Paul Giamatti (American Splendor, John Adams) and Damian Lewis (Band of Brothers, Homeland). If ever there was a pair of mugs that was going attract my attention, it’s these two. Secondly, I love the composition of the image itself, and ow neither man is looking directly at the other but would have the other in their periphery, giving the viewer the sense that they are watching each other while trying to not give away that they are doing so. Lewis’ cocksure glance is complimented well by Giamatti’s grizzled, yet focused look. Finally, the skyscraper show in between them along with the title gives you a sense of how big a stage these two characters are playing on.
So with nothing but an image and a promise of greatness, I plopped my butt in front of my TV to check it out, and I was not disappointed. What we got here folks is a nice slow burn cat and mouse story about big business corruption with tons of male posturing and enough profanity for all.
Lewis plays Bobbie Axelrod, a man worked his way up from nothing. He was the only major player in his hedge fund not taken out during 9/11, and has since grabbed the reigns of power and drove the fund and himself to higher rates of prosperity than ever before by playing very fast and loose (both publicly and privately) with the rules. On the flip side, we have Giamatti as U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, a man that came from money that chose the life of a public servant. He’s ambitious and very protective of his perfect conviction record, and only prosecuting when he and his team have built a case where a conviction is a lock. Sitting in the middle, we have Maggie Siff (Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy) as Wendy Rhoades, the wife of Rhoades and the psychiatrist for Axelrod. The situation is more than a little contrived, but Siff’s performance alone makes it believable.
The show’s greatest strength is that nobody has been painted as the good guy or bad guy. Every character has their virtues along with their flaws, giving the audience little reasons to root for everyone and no one. While our two leads are antagonists to each other, they are the protagonists of their own stories. Even if you pick a side to root for, it isn’t because the series has purposely directed you to, at least so far. Another bright spot is that this is a very modern tale adjusted to the values of our time. At least once in each of the first two episodes, a scene is set up to look like it’s going to go a certain way because we’ve seen it happen a dozen times before in film and television, only to go in a different direction. To say much more would cross over into spoiler territory, but let me just say that it’s nice to see a show that is aware that the times have changed, and that some of the old taboos have become more widely accepted.
We’ve seen these types of stories in movies like Wall Street over the years, but we haven’t seen a truly successful version of those types of stories on the small screen. With any luck, Billions might be the first to pull it off. The series is stacked to the roof with great actors who know how to get the most out of what they are given here. Nobody is going to argue that this series is wholly original, and it isn’t doing anything revolutionary to reinvent the genre, but the show knows what it is and is trying to deliver the best damn version of this type of story that it can. Right now, you can watch the pilot episode of Billions for free on Showtime’s website, and their are plenty of free trials on Amazon and Hulu that let you watch the second episode. I say take an hour or two out of your day to give the show a shot and see if it’s right for you. I’m sure you’ll be glad you did.