TV Review: “Billions”

Though in need of a more authentic touch, the binge-watchable “Billions” is expertly written and performed.

Rating: 4.0/5.0
Release Date: January 17, 2016

In the opening scene of “Billions,” a man is hogtied and bound, awaiting a dominatrix: a perfect metaphor for the show to come. “Billions” is a show about power relationships. It is a showdown between an ultra-rich hedge fund king and a megalomaniacal U.S. Attorney. It’s shameless in its desire to be gripping, a tactic that works because of its sharp writing and excellent acting. And, like the act performed in its opening scene, “Billions,” a show that deliberately eschews realism, is an incredibly satisfying fantasy.

“Billions” follows the characters of Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), a hedge fund manager, and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), a U.S. Attorney for the southern district of New York. Both Lewis and Giamatti are experts at portraying characters that no one can trust (Lewis in “Homeland” and Giamatti in “The Ides of March”), and their performances in “Billions” are no exception. Axelrod is at first presented as a charitable, hard-working family man, but as the show goes on, he is revealed to be more and more manipulative and deceptive. Aside from his wealth, Axelrod’s greatest tools are his intellect and determination. He is convincingly portrayed as a brilliant investor, a Walter White of Wall Street who uses his knowledge of the market to make millions and outwit his opponents. And his main opponent is Chuck Rhoades, another powerful New York figure who is determined to prosecute those who would usually buy their way out of a conviction. The acting in “Billions” is elite for television, with Lewis’ amicability quickly evolving into spite and Giamatti’s performance blending righteousness and ruthlessness.

The screenwriting team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien (“Ocean’s Thirteen”) created “Billions” with help from financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin. “Billions” contains many moving parts, and the creative team was able to put the puzzle pieces together into a story full of biting dialogue and a plot that moves at a rapid pace. The show presents many facets of the business world, including hedge fund managers, traders, lawyers, business executives and journalists. It is fascinating to see how characters of different backgrounds come together to outmaneuver each other and plan their next attack.

While the writing of “Billions” is razor-sharp and relentlessly entertaining, it lacks a sense of authenticity. While it shows the corruptive influence of wealth, it doesn’t reveal the interworking of money and power with any real precision or depth as was done in shows like “The Wire.” The show is so bent on keeping you watching that it doesn’t bother showing you how the financial or legal world actually works. Instead, “Billions” captivates you with its characters and story, saturated with all of the elements which make for exciting TV: lies, machinations, relationship problems and kinky sex. While “Billions” doesn’t feel like an adequate real-world representation of Wall Street, it is a riveting and original show that carries a high risk of being binge watched.