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Showtime's Financial Drama 'Billions' Doubles Down On Melodrama And Machismo

Paul Giamatti plays a U.S. Attorney with ambitions of becoming governor in the Showtime series <em>Billions, </em>which begins airing Jan. 17.
Paul Giamatti plays a U.S. Attorney with ambitions of becoming governor in the Showtime series Billions, which begins airing Jan. 17.

"Money doesn't talk," said Bob Dylan. "It swears." This is almost literally true in the blizzard of books, movies and TV shows about our financial one-percenters. If our wolves of Wall Street love anything more than obscene wealth, it's obscene language. These guys — and they are mainly guys — don't trust anyone who's shy about dropping F-bombs.

Who's effing who — and how — is one of the governing metaphors of Billions, a new Showtime series whose opening shot features one of its lead characters trussed up and awaiting a dominatrix. Though my heart sank when I saw this, such an image is truth in advertising. This is a show about power relationships, one that's positively shameless in its desire to grab you.

Billions is built around the collision of two megalomaniacal power-brokers, both played by actors who specialize in characters you can't trust. That Pavarotti of prickliness Paul Giamatti is Chuck Rhoades, a well-born U.S. Attorney with just enough conscience that he can't completely enjoy his vaulting ambition.

The calculating Rhoades dreams of being governor, which will be easier if he takes the scalp of a financial high-flier. Enter Bobby "Axe" Axelrod, played by perma-slippery Damian Lewis, far different here than in Homeland. He's a hedge-fund maestro who presents himself as a regular guy, but is the kind of thug who remembers, and avenges, slights decades later.

At first, Rhoades worries about going after Axe, who's popular because of his casual dress, blue-collar origins and canny post-9/11 donations. But when Axe courts bad publicity by deciding to buy a staggeringly expensive house, Rhoades thinks it safe to make his move.

But there are complications. For starters, Rhoades' psychologist wife, Wendy — niftily played by Maggie Siff — is a long-time life coach at Axelrod's firm. And naturally Axe fights back. His personal fixer, played with a mortician's sangfroid by Terry Kinney, instantly starts targeting Rhoades' staff and family.

Billions was created by the screenwriting team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien — who wrote Oceans Thirteen, among others — along with New York Times financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin. Together they've come up with a plot that doesn't even aspire to the earnestness of an old-fashioned Hollywood morality play. The show's basically a glossy melodrama.

And it offers a melodrama's pleasures. The action clips right along, with punchy dialogue, twists and machinations, gratuitous premium-cable nudity, and lots of prime acting moments — Lewis showing Axe's affability melt into ruthlessness, Giamatti's blend of righteousness and bullying when Rhoades yells at a stranger for not cleaning up after his dog. They're really good.

But their effing machismo lacks inner dimension and often feels generic. We've heard these alpha dogs bark many times before. The female roles feel fresher. Axe's wife, Lara — played by Malin Ackerman — seems like a perky nice girl but she's a smiler with a knife.

The show's juiciest and most original character is Wendy Rhoades, who hears everyone's secret feelings. Loyal to both her husband and to Axe — to what extent we can't be sure — this gifted psychologist plays the deepest game of all. Wendy uses her role as a confessor/advisor to nudge people into doing what she wants. She admits that such manipulation turns her on. It turns us on, too. The show perks up whenever she's on-screen.

When I heard that Andrew Ross Sorkin was involved with Billions, I hoped he would use his inside knowledge to depict the workings of money and power with the same precision that David Simon brought to The Wire. In fact, the series doesn't really care about such authenticity. In a way, this is hardly surprising. It's hard to explain, for example, what hedge funds do without losing or boring the audience. The thing that's done it best, The Big Short, jumped through all sorts of stylistic hoops to demystify the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis and the financial instruments that helped spawn it.

You'll find none of those hoops here. The show is so eager to keep us watching that it can't be bothered to show us how the world actually works. An entertaining fantasy, Billions teaches you as much about the financial world as Empire teaches you about the music business or House of Cards does the road to the White House.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.

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