Preview: Billions 1x1 (US: Showtime)

Posted on January 14, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Billions

In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime. Starts January 17
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Back when Suits started on the USA Network, it was a refreshingly strong show about lawyers that took a different tack from most legal dramas - it almost never ventured into the courtroom. Instead, it was all about the moves and counter-moves that lawyers made outside the courtroom to force their opponents to concede without the cost and randomness of a trial. Unfortunately, over the years, Suits' real-world chess-playing fell by the wayside, in favour of relationship-based drama and comedy, but the first couple of seasons were hugely enjoyable pieces of Machiavellian manipulation.

A little known fact about Suits is that originally, it was going to be about investment bankers. The show did eventually venture into that realm, where it was clear there was a very powerful pecking order in the world that made those legal eagles look like mere sparrows.

Of course, there's a group of people who make investment bankers look like wrens in the scheme of things: hedge fund managers. Managing billions and potentially worth billions themselves, depending on how you look at them, they're either the oil that prevents the wheels coming off the modern financial world or sociopaths that destroy others purely for their own personal gain.

Billions is a show that gives us Suits to the max, in that a pits a hedge fund giant (Damian Lewis) against America's top lawyer, the district attorney (Paul Giamatti) in a chess match that would make even Harvey Specter balk. Lewis is a genius of analysis, both of figures and people. He's made billions by knowing how to combine the two, deducing who'll do what, why and how to invest accordingly. He's also worked out how to play the PR game - he may be worth billions, but he's given hundreds of millions to 9/11 charities and the families of all his co-workers who died during that tragedy. 

There's also a very strong chance he's made at least part of his fortune through insider trading.

In turn, Giamatti has been raised since birth by his lawyer dad to think through every move and counter move white collar criminals might make. He knows whom to prosecute, when to prosecute and what it'll get him, and he knows how to play the PR game, too.

When an SEC official brings evidence to Giamatti that Lewis might have broken the law, Giamatti has to decide whether now is the time to take down Lewis or whether he's finally met the man who'll break his undefeated prosecuting streak. The best legal chess match in America is about to begin.

But while Billions is in many ways an excellent drama that has all the best qualities of Suits in its heyday, with smart people doing smart things to outwit each other, it's also just a little too Showtime for its own good.

About
Emmy® and Golden Globe® winners Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis star in a complex drama about power politics in the world of New York high finance. Shrewd, savvy U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Giamatti) and the brilliant, ambitious hedge fund king Bobby "Axe" Axelrod (Lewis) are on an explosive collision course, with each using all of his considerable smarts, power and influence to outmaneuver the other. The stakes are in the billions in this timely, provocative series.

Is it any good?
The show's great and I really loved the first episode. But it's flawed in two quite significant ways that stop it from achieving true greatness.

Surprisingly, one of those ways is the casting. Not of the supporting cast, among whom there are some great choices, including Toby Leonard Moore, who did so well recently in Daredevil as Wilson Fisk's right-hand man. 

No, it's the leads themselves who are the problem. Giamatti and Lewis are great actors, and are indeed Emmy winners. But it feels like they've been cast because they're Emmy winners, rather than because they're right for the two lead roles. Giamatti's far better suited to the comedy and it always feels like he's on the verge of a smirk, like he doesn't quite believe in his character. Ironically, David Costabile (Dig, Low Winter Sun, Breaking Bad, Damages, The Wire), who played the arch chessplayer Daniel Hardman in Suits, also appears in Billions and you can imagine him playing Giamatti's role much, much better - or at least without all the bellowing.

By contrast, Lewis does at least have a strong history of playing characters who appear nice at first but who have a dark streak (cf Life and Homeland). But they're always light with a hint of dark, never very dark, and Lewis just doesn't come across like one of the 'Masters of the Universe'. Like Giamatti, he doesn't really occupy the role of the ultra calculating hedge fund manager, although his problem seems to be that he's concentrating more on his accent. It doesn't help that the physical comedy-gifted, romcomtastic Swedish actress Malin Åkerman (Watchmen, The Proposal, Trophy Wife, Welcome to Sweden) plays his supposedly fierce, down-and-dirty, Irish-American wife.

The show's other problem is that it knows it's on Showtime, not HBO. That means that there needs to be sex, but sex for titillation, rather than because it's part of the story*. So the show opens with Giamatti trussed and gagged, then being burned, stood and urinated on by a dominatrix. While the final scene puts a novel spin on that whole situation, it's still completely unnecessary to the plot and doesn't add much to Giamatti - or anyone else's - character. Indeed, it subtracts.

Those two issues aside, Billions is both hugely enjoyable and clever. As well as playing it surprisingly evenly handed with a bunch of billionaires whom most people (usually rightly) revile, when it comes to its chess match, it never insults the audience's intelligence. Even when it looks like it has, there'll be a later scene that reveals that what you saw wasn't what you saw and everyone was working at a different level of calculation to what you're usually used to in a drama. Here, it's incisive and educational, with Giamatti and Lewis both almost Sherlockian in their deductions about what's truly going on.

But it also gives us some blistering dialogue and characters who are interesting and likable, whether they're the 'good guys' or the 'bad guys'. Giamatti's wife (Maggie Siff from Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy), who's also in charge of performance and HR at Lewis' firm, is no slouch here, either, and the show gives her plenty to do, partly in her own service but partly in giving us insight into what kind of mindset a hedge fund investor needs to have. 

As in the best face-offs, such as Heat's De Niro/Pacino tête-à-tête, you want both Lewis and Giamatti to win, and you suspect that the outcome is going to be decided not by who makes the first incorrect move but through pure blind luck. If the show's strengths can exceed its weaknesses and it maintains the quality of its pilot, Billions is going to be one of the best shows of the year.

* Yes, yes, Game of Thrones, I know. But generally

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