When it premiered at the start of 2016, you might have been forgiven for overlooking “Billions.” At the time when the term Peak TV was becoming inescapable, it was another prestige cable TV drama centered on white dudes in a world of wealth and privilege. Even the cast seemed to be recycled from other acclaimed shows: Damian Lewis from “Homeland,” Paul Giamatti from “John Adams,” Maggie Siff from “Sons Of Anarchy,” Toby Leonard Moore from “Daredevil,” David Costabile from “Breaking Bad,” Jeffrey DeMunn from “The Walking Dead.”
The territory — big money on Wall Street — felt like it had been well-trodden recently on the big screen too, with the success of “The Wolf Of Wall Street” and “The Big Short.” So all told, it felt like it was destined to be overshadowed by other shows like HBO’s “Vinyl,” which debuted around the same time (“not quite as smart or as good as it hopes it is,” our review from January 2016 read).
And yet a year on, “Vinyl” is long gone, while “Billions” is some way into its second season and doing great in the ratings. While reviews were mixed to begin with, the show gained in confidence and skill quickly, winning more and more fans from the TV-critic community, and season two has only built on its strengths, and increasingly feels like it deserves to be talked about as one of the best dramas on TV right now. It accidentally also might also be the most relevant in terms of understanding why we’ve ended up in the political mess that we’re in right now.
If you’re unfamiliar with the show, which airs on Showtime, it was created by screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien (“Rounders,” “Ocean’s Thirteen,” “The Girlfriend Experience”) with financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, who penned one of the definitive books on the financial crisis, “Too Big To Fail” (which was adapted for HBO, and coincidentally also starred “Billions” actor Paul Giamatti).
Though the cast is ever-growing, the focus is on two arch-rivals — hedge fund king Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Lewis), a self-made super-billionaire who built his wealth in the aftermath of 9/11, and Chuck Rhoades (Giamatti), the ruthless U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Of New York, who opens an investigation into possible suspicious trading by Axe’s company Axe Capital. They’re two alpha males, and them being put at loggerheads is further complicated because Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Siff), is a psychiatrist who works as a performance coach for Axe Capital, and is almost as important to the arch-capitalist (who she’s known longer than her husband) as his own wife (Malin Akerman, who’s as good as everyone else even though she’s so far had less to do).
It’s in some ways a premise that’s smaller in scope than many shows, and almost everything comes down to the rivalry, enmity and straight-up hatred between the two main leads (though colleagues and friends of the central couples have become increasingly crucial, such as Chuck’s deputies Bryan and Kate, played by Moore and Condola Rashad, and Axe’s consigliere Wags, played by Costabile). So often these shows struggle to sustain the drama across seasons even when their set-up is much deeper — look at Showtime stablemates “Homeland” and “The Affair,” which quickly ran out of steam, or any number of streaming service shows that attempt to stretch three hours of plot over 20 hours of TV (*cough* “Bloodline”).
But, across its first season, “Billions” proved to be much better plotted and paced than most of its rivals. Koppelman and Levien know story structure better than most, and the macro-plotting dropped the twists and turns at exactly the right point, while never falling into the one-big-movie pitfall of forgetting to make each episode, and hell, each scene, compelling on an individual level. In an age when even some of the best shows can feel like a bit of a slog to get through, it was refreshing to find a show that was so pleasurable to watch every week.
As it went on, and particularly in the four episodes of the second season so far, it’s only become more compelling, too: growing to be more expansive, sprightly and funny, it sometimes feels as much satire as it is high-octane drama. We’d feared, at first, that the show might just prove to be an extended dick-measuring contest between its two high-powered leads, a drama about two insanely competitive assholes. And to be fair, that’s exactly what it is.
But it does that brilliantly, and uses it to explore and expose issues of ego, masculinity, class, hubris, power and ambition in a way that few other shows have achieved. Still, it’s easy to see why those elements as subject matter might have seemed old hat, or at least overly familiar, a year ago to some viewers. And then came the rise of a man whose immense ego, toxic masculinity, obsession with class, total hubris, sudden power and hideous ambition puts Axe and Chuck to shame: President Donald Trump.