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

The BarrometerA 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


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.