'Billions': TV Review

JoJo Whilden/Showtime
Mo' money, same problems.
1/17/2016

Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti are fine, but Maggie Siff ('Mad Men') is the real star of Showtime's new financial sector-set drama.

Although Showtime is a network of varied offerings, "fixers" represent a key niche.

From Ray Donovan to Marty Kaan of House of Lies, these characters operate in a certain way. They're preternaturally competent men — and sometimes the women who love them or work alongside them — who know that with liberal application of pressure, they can break the will of other preternaturally competent men, even if their own lives are usually in desperate need of fixing. The formula is satisfying, even if there's something dehumanizing in the way it reduces every problem to dick-measuring and spirit-crushing.

Transferring the formula to the financial sector, the new drama Billions is being pushed as a clash of Emmy-winning titans Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti. But while both leads are sturdy, Billions works best when it recognizes that the show's most interesting and complicated character, and by a comfortable margin, is played by Maggie Siff. Through six episodes, the plotlines focusing on men putting the squeeze on each other in the name of profit or justice have already blended into a blur of well-acted familiarity; only the scenes with Siff come to life.

Giamatti plays U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, who takes great pride in his perfect conviction record, though he may be building his reputation on most aggressively pursuing the cases he knows he can win. Raised in privilege, Chuck has his sights trained on Wall Street improprieties, but he seems to be letting the worst crooks get away with settlements and coming down hard on petty thieves. Or maybe Chuck is just waiting for a big win against the flashiest of targets, hedge-fund king Bobby "Axe" Axelrod (Lewis), ruler of an empire built from nothing on equal parts brilliance, ruthlessness and questionably legal information.

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Siff's Wendy Rhoades is the woman in the middle of these two peacocking alphas. Married to Chuck, but working as in-house motivational guru for Axe's staff, her different kinds of love for both men represent an increasingly worrisome conflict of interest. Also formidable is Lara Axelrod, who looks like a trophy wife because she's played by Malin Akerman but is an occasional equal partner in Axe's enterprise — at least when the writers remember to let her be.

As one might expect from a series in which one main character shares a name with a men's body spray and the other is named Chuck, Billions wants to overwhelm you with its machismo and bluster. When the show is about Axe and Chuck, the testosterone-bloated episodes are results-oriented and perfunctory. Axe wants money, he locates the person with the position or influence to give him what he wants, he isolates his or her weakness and he squeezes. Chuck wants to bring down Axe, he locates the person with the access or proximity to Axe, he isolates his or her weakness, he squeezes. Their methods may be vicious or shady, but their goals are transparent and the execution is prosaic. What's so intriguing about Wendy is that her objectives aren't always clear and that, with her closeness to both Axe and Chuck, the accumulation of wealth or power may mean less to her than the sheer satisfaction she derives from the mechanics of manipulation. Depending on the moment, Siff gives Wendy's enjoyment of the game a sexual charge or makes it seem coldly calculating, and it's a pleasure to watch.

Siff has thrived opposite heavily male ensembles before, but there was never any chance that Rachel Menken or Tara Knowles were going to become the respective protagonists of Mad Men or Sons of Anarchy. Wendy feels like she could become the focus of Billions, if creators Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin ever tire of throwing meat for Lewis and Giamatti to devour. Their performances bring out the contrasts between Axe and Chuck: Lewis captures the loose-limbed swagger of a man who has conquered his insecurities and only looks backwards to find more fuel, while Giamatti is clenched and coiled and internalized, enjoying the clout of his job and his intelligence, but still fighting his own feelings of weakness.

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Early episodes also feature fine work from supporting players including Toby Leonard Moore, Jeffrey DeMunn and, particularly, David Costabile, twirling a literal mustache with profane glee. But we've just seen guys of this ilk before, and the actors involved in the boardroom power plays and aggressive cell-phone shouting of The Big Short or Wolf of Wall Street or Too Big To Fail (from Sorkin's book, featuring Giamatti) were hardly slouches.

Pushing Siff's Wendy to the center would be the differentiating touch that Billions is currently struggling to find. Thus far, it's just a high stakes game of cat and mouse (though pilot director Neil Burger brought much more flash and fun to a similar milieu in the feature Limitless). It's handsome and well-produced, but its treatment of excess is almost matter-of-fact, lacking the zest one might want from a show about people spending tens of millions on houses in the Hamptons or jetting off to Quebec to hang with Metallica.

With corporate corruption and selective regulation still making headlines, Billions also has the chance to answer big questions, but when Axe muses, "When did it become a crime to succeed in this country?" you get the sense the show is more interested in glib one-liners than sincere exploration. The episodic rush of wheeling and dealing only occasionally allows viewers to understand what's happening; one episode might involve several explanations for the importance of a "short squeeze," but you're more frequently just expected to know that blackmail and threats and emasculation are the tools of the trade for all Showtime fixers, regardless of context. And squeezing Billions into that genre reduces the chances that anybody will take the show seriously as a substantive critique of a corrupt system.

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