Categorised | US TV reviews

Tags |

Third-episode verdict: Billions (US: Showtime; UK: Sky Atlantic)

Posted on February 2, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

BarrometerBillions.jpgA Barrometer rating of 2

In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime. Starts January 17
In the UK: Acquired by Sky Atlantic

With shows above a certain level of quality, you offer a bit more leniency. Lesser shows stick everything into their pilot episode, trying to get you to watch subsequent episodes by putting all their cards on the table straight away: "This is what we are. This is what you're going to get if you keep watching." As such, you can tell almost immediately if those shows have got what it takes to make you watch.

And then they tend to neither improve nor worsen, simply offering you more of the same until you're bored. Or maybe they just offer less and less each week as they run out of ideas.

But with shows that are obviously well written from the outset, you're prepared to bed down. When you read the first chapter of a good book, you don't immediately drop it just because you don't get how all the characters inter-relate or even what the overall plot is - you take it on trust that that will be developed, and developed well, in subsequent chapters. There may even be flaws, but if the good significantly exceeds the flaws, you'll keep reading.

And so it is with Billions. Now the first episode was really very good. Very good. A real-life chess match between the US's most powerful lawyer (Paul Giamatti) against Wall Street's most powerful hedge fund manager (Damian Lewis), it was clever, had crackling dialogue and insight. Okay, so it had that weird thing with the dominatrix and Giamatti, and to be honest, both Lewis and Giamatti are miscast. There was also no blindingly obvious reason why Giamatti was going after Lewis, other than Lewis had a lot of money, since the show didn't bother to depict Lewis doing anything bad. But it was fascinating to watch.

So I gave it latitude. All good things come to those who wait, etc, etc. Give the show time to dot the i's and cross the t's, I thought.

Now, this wasn't necessarily a mistake. I gave Rubicon about nine episodes of latitude and was much rewarded for my patience. But three episodes into Billions and we've still not had any real indication of wrong-doing by Lewis. He's a dick. Indeed, if Billions has a theme, it's that powerful people - particularly but not exclusively men - are dicks and do dickish things. The more money and/or power they have, the more dickish they are, often openly, too.

But that appears to be the extent of his crimes, beyond perhaps a bit of minor insider trading. He's not foreclosing mortgages on the penniless, he's not destroying companies and jobs for shits and giggles, he's not even doing terrible things with prostitutes on super-yachts.

He's just rich. And for some reason Giamatti wants to take him down. It's not exactly Galahad's quest for the Holy Grail, is it? 

And that would be a minor issue if the show had other assets. But it's started to divest itself of them. The second episode had a lovely piece of real-world Wall Street (spoiler alert: the simulated SEC investigation), but all that chess-playing has diminished by about 50%. It's still there and Lewis' wife, Malin Åkerman, has started to do the female equivalent, deploying some clever social gambits against someone she'd quite like to burn in Hell, but the move/counter-move structure of the first episode has largely dissipated.

In its place, we've had some comedy, which at least has been amusing, but not especially clever and is usually accompanied by everyone smirking. We've also had some more ridiculous sex. Didn't think that urinating dominatrix fun of the pilot was quite enough? Well that's back in episode three, with a cattle prod for luck, as well as discussions of the emotional implications of liking ATM. No, it's probably not what you think it is, so go Google it.

Meanwhile, episode two gave us cunnilingual naked lesbians snorting cocaine off each other. And a man being disciplined by a muscular dwarf in a wet room. 

Realistic depiction of Wall Street culture? I have no idea, but it really doesn't advance the plot or characterisation, beyond referring us back to the theme of "People with power are dicks and do dick things."

Based purely on the first episode and the fact Showtime has already given the show a second season, I'm going to stick with this, as there's clearly some clever writers working on it. But I've read reviews that suggest that at least some of the trends I've mentioned above are still true by episode five. That's a lot of leniency I'm going to have to offer.

When it's at its best Billions is a very clever piece of writing. That best is starting to recede into the distance, along with my patience. Fingers crossed, both will return at some point. In the meantime, if you enjoy lots of powerful men (and women) trying to be alphas and trying to see who can pee highest up a wall, Billions is going to be the highlight of your week.

Barrometer rating: 2
Would the show be better with female leads? Yes
TMINE prediction: Already renewed for a second season

Related entries

  • February 6, 2016: What have you been watching? Including Okkupert (Occupied), Lucifer and Marvel's Agent Carter
    The TV I watched in the week ending Saturday 6th February 2016
  • February 14, 2016: What have you been watching? Including The Man From UNCLE, Sicario
    The TV I watched in the week ending Saturday 12th February 2016
  • February 20, 2016: What have you been watching? Including Vinyl, Wanted and Vikings
    The TV I watched in the week ending Saturday 19th February 2016
  • March 14, 2016: What have you been watching? Including Flaked, The Intern, Lucifer and Billions
    The TV I watched in the week ending Monday 14th March 2016
  • March 4, 2016: What have you been watching? Including Ófærð (Trapped), The Shannara Chronicles, Lucifer and The X-Files
    The TV I watched in the two weeks ending Friday 4th March 2016
  • March 21, 2016: What have you been watching? Including Spotlight, The Americans, Second Chance, The Magicians,
    The TV I watched in the week ending Monday 21st March 2016
  • April 2, 2016: What have you been watching? Including Banshee, Blå Ögon (Blue Eyes), The Catch, Supergirl and The Americans
    The TV I watched in the week ending Saturday 2nd April 2016
  • April 15, 2016: What have you been watching? Including The Tunnel: Sabotage, 12 Monkeys and Scott Pilgrim vs The World
    The TV I watched in the week ending Friday 15th April 2016
  • February 27, 2017: What have you been watching? Including Doubt, Patriot, Training Day and Billions
    Reviews of 13/2/17-27/2/17's episodes of 24: Legacy, Cardinal, DC's Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, Fortitude, The Great Indoors, Lethal Weapon, The Magicians, Man Seeking Woman, Powerless, Son of Zorn, Timeless, Billions, Doubt, Patriot and Training Day
  • March 6, 2017: What have you been watching? Including Chicago Justice, Prime Suspect 1973 and The Blacklist: Redemption
    Mini-reviews of Chicago Justice, Prime Suspect 1973 and The Blacklist: Redemption, as well as 27/2/17-6/3/17's episodes of 24: Legacy, Billions, The Flash, The Good Fight, Imposters, Cardinal, Fortitude, Legion, The Magicians and Man Seeking Woman

Read other posts about:

Allowable comments

You can leave just about any kind of comment you like. You can argue, suggest I am (or anyone else is) wrong, leaving general messages of love – anything. However, you absolutely can't leave messages that attack other commenters (or me), are simple variations of "your review sucks" or that are misogynistic, racist, homophobic, etc: your comment will either be edited or deleted and you'll be barred from leaving any further comments. We want to keep it civil here.


You can hide a spoiler by putting <spoiler> before it and </spoiler> after it. Hover over a spoiler to reveal it!

Featured Articles

Twin Peaks

Lynch at his best in years