The key players in and primary causes of The Great Recession have been tagged, scrutinized, and depicted by the likes of Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Paul Giamatti. Their stories have been told in the pages of The Big Short, Too Big To Fail, and the award-winning movies they inspired. Having told a few of these stories himself, Too Big To Fail author Andrew Ross Sorkin’s latest TV effort finds him transitioning into what could be considered a post-Great Recession fable, where wealth is nothing to aspire to, and a belief in justice doesn’t equal sainthood. Sorkin teamed up with the Rounders duo of Brian Koppelman and David Levien to create Billions, a TV series that splits its focus between the high-finance types Sorkin covers for The New York Times, and the civil servants tasked with keeping them in check. But the drama here isn’t about what capital is changing hands and how it’s being acquired—it’s a character study about why someone would play the market in the first place.
Damian Lewis stars as Bobby Axelrod, a kid from Yonkers whose fearsome hedge fund allows him to fuck with the blue bloods who used to look down on him. We know Bobby is not to be trifled with because both he and his fund go by “Axe,” and we know he’s a Wall Street outsider because his business wardrobe includes a Master Of Puppets T-shirt. That outsider approach also includes some questionably legal trading strategies, which puts Axe in the crosshairs of U.S. attorney Chuck Rhoades (Giamatti, returning to Sorkin’s beat after playing Ben Bernanke in the HBO adaptation of Too Big To Fail). Chuck comes from money, which we know because his father, Chuck Rhoades Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn) shows up in the pilot to sweet talk an old crony out from under the Department Of Justice’s thumb. Meanwhile, we know Chuck the younger is into regulations, orders, and following the rules, because his onscreen introduction occurs under the spiked heel of a dominatrix.
Chuck’s sexual kinks—and the wrinkles they give his marriage to performance coach Wendy (Maggie Siff)—represent Billions’ zeal for heavy-handed symbolism. With its workaday compositions and chatty cast of dozens, it’s not an artful program. No matter which side of the boardroom/courtroom divide the characters fall on, they all speak in the same sort of stylized, alpha-dog profanities. The more wanton and colorful the pronouncement from Axe’s hand-of-the-king/hype man Wags (David Costabile), the more Costabile’s facial hair resembles that of a cartoon devil. The subtlest shades on the show are in the morals of its dueling anti-protagonists: Chuck stands valiantly by his oath to serve the people, even as he rides that high horse in a single-minded pursuit of Axe (and then: the governor’s office); Axe’s blue-collar work ethic and folksy pizza-joint and paper-route anecdotes look ridiculous next to his estate in the Hamptons.
As much as Billions strives to be about all of the people in Chuck and Axe’s orbit, those two celestial bodies are really all the show has going for it. At least their performances keep the Machiavellian soap opera propped up: Giamatti with his simmering intensity, Lewis with his understated cockiness. Wendy gets spottily meaty material, and Siff’s wryness provides the non-“Axe gets revenge” laughs, but everything else is padding. Malin Akerman is wasted in the nothing role of Lara, Axe’s wife/co-conspirator in interclass warfare; the traders at Axe Capital are all interchangeable doofuses in need of validation from their boss or a pep talk from HR. The tight focus keeps Billions from spinning completely out of control, but it also leaves the impression that all fluctuations in the securities market are the results of pissing contests among the 1 percent.
Even after half of a season, it’s difficult to tell what a second, third, or fourth season of Billions would look like, beyond the latest volley between Southern District Javert and private-jet Valjean. It’s a TV show with seemingly no TV show in it. Lewis has been down this road before: The same could’ve been said about the Carrie Mathison-Nicholas Brody dynamic at the beginning of Homeland. While early seasons of that show succeeded in bringing the war on terror down to a human scale, the mysteries of Wall Street aren’t cleared as easily. The legal and financial blows struck by Axe’s and Chuck’s camps are given the weight of bombshells, but their impact is harder to convey onscreen. Billions is under no obligation to educate its audience on what its characters do—but then there’s little sense why it matters. Their inspirations and motivations are spelled out in lengthy speeches and broad metaphors, but the wickedness of Axe’s sins is largely summarized as “insider trading is wrong.” It’s the inverse of Adam McKay’s approach to The Big Short’s dense subject matter, in which meeting the players provides a deeper understanding of the game. Backgrounding the market keeps the characters of Billions at arm’s length.