What the world needs now most of all is another TV series about rich white men with incredible power who do terrible things. OK, maybe that's the last thing anyone needs... And still, somehow, we do.
Billions, the brainchild of Rounders and Ocean's Thirteen co-writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien, makes a very strong case for keeping one eye resolutely trained on the fictional one-percent. It's not that Billions flips the script on male-driven anti-hero drama of TV's recent "Golden Age" so much as the way the show leans so heavily into the form's excesses to produce a genuinely enlightening and entertaining series about levers of American power and the people who seek to pull them.
Billions, which begins its second season on Showtime this Sunday, is on its surface a classic macho exercise: man against man. It's about a New York U.S. Attorney looking to take down a billionaire hedge fund manager who also happens to be his wife's boss. Paul Giamatti plays the U.S. Attorney, Chuck Rhoades, and Damien Lewis is Bobby "Axe" Axelrod, the billionaire who started from nothing and built much of his fortune on the losses suffered by his company on 9/11.
In the mold of much of recent television, both men are bad—truly awful people whose better qualities only serve to highlight the nastiness of their personal corruption. Axe engages in bribery and insider trading like it's nothing, while Rhoades uses every tool in his toolkit and outside it to bring Axe to his knees.
The show is about money and power, obviously, but rather than examine the toll of power or even necessarily its inherent corrupting influence, Billions is focused with immense precision on the play of power: the dynamic of it, the back-and-forth. Not unlike Game of Thrones, Koppelman and Levien's series looks at what happens when the seat of power is up for grabs.
The difference, though, is that Billions sets itself squarely within a very real world. It's a heightened world, to be sure, with wild plot machinations, melodramatic dialogue, and hilariously baroque insults spewed forth by characters that seem to resemble the nightmares of the underclass brought to life. And still, there's an undeniable reality in it. The over-the-top extravagance of the lifestyles on display is juiced up only by the degree to which the characters so forcefully commandeer their places within their setting.
If the battle between depiction and endorsement found its zenith in the controversies over The Wolf of Wall Street, Billions takes a knowing step back. It's filled with glamorous homes, glass-clad offices, and weekend jaunts to Canada to meet Metallica (yes, seriously), but the setting is purely a vehicle. Koppelman and Levien undermine the gloss and glitz at every turn, making their characters so completely repulsive in their ambition as to make their success come across as perversion. It's no accident that Rhoades can only get off through BDSM—which is not a knock against kinky sex, but an indictment of the dominant violent release the character requires in every other aspect of his life. For Axe, the sex may be more "normal," but nothing else is. His attraction to wealth is only a function of his desire for utter dominance of the people around him. If he cares about his family and friends—a big "if" in some cases—it's only insofar as they reflect his own power and success.
Billions could play as dark and dreary drama. Instead, it more accurately depicts New York as a vibrant, lively place.
This could, of course, play as dark and dreary drama, preaching from on high about the evils of Wall Street, donned in dark colors and dreary streets and suffused with the corrupt souls of the characters on screen. Instead, Billions more accurately depicts New York as a vibrant, lively place. The offices are bustling. The streets are busy. Even the show's relationship with diversity is reflective of the city. While its main characters are the white moneyed elite, their space is filled on the margins by characters of various ethnic origins, races, religions, sexual orientations, and gender nonconformity—all of whom are just as complex and fascinating as our prescribed leads.
It's easy, then, to see the seduction of this place, and of wanting to control it, to make it move for one's own satisfaction. Understanding and feeling a bit of that seduction is key, because the show intends to entertain as much as bash the audience over the head with the evils of corporate malfeasance. But the real delight comes from watching titans butt heads, and there's a particular pleasure in watching them do so while simultaneously tearing apart a world so loathsome as Wall Street.
There, in the middle of everything falling apart, is where the fun lies. The first season ended with a scene at Bobby Axelrod's offices, the walls and ceilings literally ripped apart, and Axe and Rhoades facing off, each with nothing to lose, communicating that to one another with full force. The ridiculousness of such a scene isn't lost on the show. It's the point: the ridiculousness of it all, really. Men like this, motivated almost entirely by the whims of ego, have been allowed to helm global finance, crashing the world without any consideration for the real people done wrong. Even Rhoades, the man supposedly on the people's side, can't help but be caught up in the self-centered insanity of his mission.
To have the downright absurdity of these people put boldly on display, and through such flashy writing and intense acting, just feels right. Billions won't change minds, and it won't change Wall Street or the politics that govern the American economy, but it sure as hell feels good see the extreme childishness of their enterprise laid bare on premium cable.