January 14, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Billions”


BILLIONS:  Sunday 10PM on Showtime (pilot available via VOD and streaming) – Potential DVR Alert

There’s a gag in The Big Short where an esoteric piece of financial information, crucial for understanding the mortgage meltdown but hard to communicate without an audience’s eyes glazing over, is illustrated by having it explained by Margot Robbie in a bathtub.  (Similar concepts come later by way of Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez.)  It’s a clever–and insightful–bit, and it works a lot better than the much more ham-handed version of the strategy employed at the very start of the pilot for Showtime’s new high-finance series BILLIONS.  With the apparent idea of easing viewers into subject matter that might seem dry, series creators David Levien, Brian Koppelman (together, they wrote Rounders and Ocean’s 13) and Andrew Ross Sorkin (a NY Times financial reporter) kick things off with some crass S&M that sets the stage for a very different kind of show than the one they’ve actually made.  For a series about smart people, it’s a dumb move.  There’s another, albeit much less drastic, failure of tone late in the pilot as well, an exchange between the series antagonists, hedge fund tycoon Bobby Alexrod (Damian Lewis) and crusading US Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), which the writers and director Neil Burger allow to become much too quickly overheated just to amp things up for a climax.

Between those unwise bookends, though, Billions is much more promising.  The pilot sets up its leads with a nice reversal:  Rhoades is a child of privilege, whose adversaries include his own father (guest star Jeffrey DeMunn) and the men he was raised to admire, while Axelrod has risen from the streets of Yonkers, building his reputation as the sole partner of his firm to survive the World Trade Center attacks (because he happened to be out of the office at a meeting that day), and someone who professes deep feelings about having lived while others perished.  The two men are ruthless, egotistical and canny, with limits that aren’t yet clear, and they have something else in common:  Rhoades’ wife Wendy (Maggie Siff) is a psychiatrist who works as a HR troubleshooter and trusted advisor for Axelrod, a conflict of interest that will certainly cause reverberations with both of the men in her life as her husband decides to go after her boss.

It’s a strong set-up, and in Giamatti, Lewis and Siff it has leads capable of projecting intelligence as well as charisma.  (Other cast members, like Malin Akerman as Axelrod’s wife, and David Constabile and guest star Terry Kinney as two of his high-ranking executives, have relatively minimal roles in the pilot, but will presumably be seen more as the series goes on.)  The writers and Burger move things forward swiftly, and there’s plenty of room for the characters to develop.

Billions is ultimately a soap and not an expose of the universe of finance a la The Big Short, and it seems clear from the pilot that the terminology and strategies will be used more to pepper the dialogue and propel the plot than with any particular world-view in mind.  All the characters are rich (even one of Rhoades’ subordinates is assured that if he crossed into the private sector, he’d start with well over $1M per year), so the risks are more to reputation than livelihood.  We know Bobby Axelrod is a genius, because early on he’s given a scene where he brilliantly re-interprets some raw data he’s given in neo-Sherlockian manner, while Rhoades plans his litigations three moves ahead, and the fun will come from both men trying to manipulate each other.  Within those limits, and bondage sequences aside, Billions seems like a profitable piece of work, and potentially an addictive one.  As Homeland becomes progressively sillier with each season, Showtime can use one of those (even if Billions is a curious companion piece to the network’s far more proletarian Shameless).  Early signs suggest a worthwhile investment.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."