Damien Lewis, Paul Giamatti
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Money is attractive, but it isn’t sexy. It offers security, comfort, mobility, influence, control, and even companionship if you leverage it accordingly, but money itself is not all that interesting, and that makes it hard to tell compelling stories about capitalistic greed. The 2008 financial crisis should be as riveting as stories get because the stakes are so far-reaching and consequential, not just for the country but for the world. Andrew Ross Sorkin did as good a job as anyone of spinning narrative gold out of the recession with 2009’s Too Big To Fail, which got a pretty good film adaptation on HBO, but again, that’s real life, real people, and the very real ruin created by their reckless choices. Commanding the audience’s attention with a fictional series about the same subject matter isn’t easy. The last scripted show that explored wealth porn to this degree was ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money, and while that scintillating title brought in a curious audience, that curiosity was about the adjectives, not the noun.

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Billions is about money in a much more literal way, so no one can blame Sorkin and co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien for wanting to inject some messy humanity into what could easily become the calculus exam of television shows. But man alive, the way they did it is so, so off-putting. I’m referring, of course, to the opening scene, which is memorable for all the wrong reasons, and suggests a desperation which makes me question whether Billions is a worthwhile investment. Chuck Rhoades, a buttoned-up U.S. Attorney who focuses on insider trading and other financial crimes, is hog-tied on the floor as a dominatrix bathed in shadows recites borderline boilerplate language about how he’s been a naughty, naughty boy. She presses her stiletto heel into his chest and burns him with her elegantly long cigarette, then relieves his suffering by squatting over him and urinating on the burn.

The scene is not gratuitous per se, since it aims to make a larger point about who Chuck is and where his currency lies. As a federal prosecutor with an unblemished record of convictions against the Bernie Madoffs of the world, Chuck holds a great deal of power over the powerful. He’s the man feared by the men whose exorbitant wealth makes them practically fearless. Even Chuck’s father, himself an insanely wealthy master of the universe, has to approach his son deliberately so he doesn’t wind up in the government’s crosshairs himself. Chuck is so powerful publically that what excites him privately is to be stripped of that power and to be forced to plead for mercy.

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The opening scene drives the point home, and combined with the final shot, it offers some insights into Chuck and Wendy’s marriage. But these ideas are psychologically facile and probably would have been implicit had the dominatrix scenes been excised entirely. The scenes only exist to take advantage of and play into notions of what a premium cable drama is supposed to be, and to offer some freaky sex stuff right up front lest anyone think Billions is all about dry shit like speculative financial instruments. Because the truth is, this stuff is kind of dry to the general populace, so the immediate introduction of kink is a tempting shortcut. But the best storytellers can turn subject matter that seems boring on its face into something truly riveting, and the opening suggests that Sorkin, Koppelman, and Levien don’t think that can be done without some TV-MA bells and whistles, and if they have so little faith in the story they’re telling, why should I believe in it more?

If the first episode of Billions was otherwise an unqualified success, those brief indulgences could be forgiven, but for a pilot, it feels woefully thin. The show is ultimately about the showdown between Chuck and Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, two men who are extremely powerful in different ways. Axe is at the top of the hedge fund game, which is why he can afford a house with an eight-figure price tag. Beyond that, Axe has a compelling story. He just so happened to be out of the office when the 9/11 attacks took place, leaving him the sole survivor of the firm that eventually became Axe Capital. Since then, his survivor guilt and desire to inure himself to criticism has led him to become a charming philanthropist. Axe’s level of wealth—”fuck you money,” in his started-from-the-bottom parlance—should mean you don’t have to answer to or fear anyone, but Axe is terrified by the possibility of a swarm of men in windbreakers telling him to stand up and back away from his computer. Chuck embodies Axe’s fears, while Axe embodies Chuck’s professional ambitions, which Chuck fears are starting to look too modest, given an 81-0 conviction record that’s missing an 800-pound gorilla.

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That sounds like a pitch for a terrific movie, especially with the estimable Paul Giamatti and Damien Lewis in the lead roles. But I’m not sure it’s a series, and the pilot didn’t do anything to quell my fears. Billions feels like it’s going to be a thin broth, even if it becomes more flavorful as it goes along. Obviously the financial sector is a huge world with a ton of moving parts and interesting nooks and crannies to explore, so the issue isn’t that the subject matter is inadequate, but the story might be. Obviously there has to be a circuitous path forward for Chuck’s pursuit of Axe or there’s no show, and by the end of the pilot, I didn’t feel interested enough in their rivalry. Right now, I don’t have a dog in the fight, but that’s also why I’m looking forward to seeing where Billions goes. I want to invest, I just need to hear the right pitch.

Stray observations

  • Wendy is already the most interesting character on the show, and while her involvement with Axe Capital feels contrived, that conflict is probably the most interesting plot element Billions has going for it so far.
  • I’m usually all for more Malin Akerman, but I’m not crazy about this character, especially in her big opening scene with the aggrieved widow of Axe’s deceased partner. It’s not Akerman’s performance, it’s the writing, which is like, “I grew up on the threatening people side of town.”

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