ReviewsTVLists

7 Reasons ‘Billions’ Is TV’s Best Drama

Peak Television” shows little sign of stopping.

HBO’s mini-series “Big Little Lies” by David E. Kelley is a nice addition to an already packed Sunday night. It recently joined with Showtime’s enduring “Homeland” saga and season 2 of the brilliant “Billions.”

If you haven’t watched “Billions” yet, I can assure you it’s not the show you probably think it is. You won’t see story lines bashing Wall Street and corporate excess.

Far from it.

So what is “Billions” about?

The show, which just earned a third season pickup, follows two driven people with massive egos and powerful organizations at their disposal. Stars Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis lock horns in a fiscal death match each week.

It is this best show on TV right now. Here are seven reasons why:

1. Casting

While HBO focuses on excellence in storytelling, Showtime delivers on exemplar character development. The network’s actors help bring these characters to life.

There’s a depth and nuance of the key players in “Billions” that make it a pleasure to watch. The non-binary gendered “Taylor” (as an avatar for Millennials) is a nice contrast to the “zero sum game” being played by Bobby Axelrod (Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Giamatti). They’re like the last two cars in a demolition derby.

BILLIONS_giamatti-siff
Paul Giamatti and Maggie Siff play a complicated couple in ‘Billions.’

Remember how good Giamatti was in movies like “Sideways” and “Saving Private Ryan?” Well, he’s back and amazing in this.

Maggie Siff of “Sons of Anarchy” fame expertly plays Wendy Rhodes, the very competent spouse of Chuck Rhoades and corporate psychologist to Bobby Axelrod and Ax Capital. Malin Akerman plays Bobby’s whip-smart wife Lara Axelrod, David Costabile’s compelling Mike “Wags” Wagner and Condola Rashad’s Assistant DA all are punching above their weight here.

2. The Intensity

The intensity of this show is grounded in a reality that is relatable: reputation. Unlike zombies (or frozen zombies) or even embedded spies, “Billions” is based on how important our reputation is to our relationships, our careers and even how we feel about ourselves. Is the world hanging in the balance? No, and frankly that’s refreshing. It’s just integrity that’s on the line and that is everything.

3. Intelligence

If you follow my posts on Hollywood In Toto then you know I love smart television like “Black Mirror” and “The Leftovers.” I also have limited patience with formulaic plots found in ridiculous shows like “Elementary.”

I think this might have something to do with being forced to watch “Murder She Wrote” as a kid. The joy of “Billions” is that it demands you pay close attention to what’s said and to the body language of the characters.

Billions_akerman-lewis
Malin Akerman and Damian Lewis star in Showtime’s excellent drama ‘Billions.’

There’s a lot going on in each scene in terms of unspoken thoughts/reactions that you have to keep track of in order to fully enjoy what’s unfolding before you. It doesn’t lead you forward with breadcrumbs the size of small dogs. That’s smart TV.

4. Cat and Mouse

If you work long enough in the corporate world you meet someone that, for whatever reason, you can’t stand. They represent everything you’re against (and the dislike is mutual). And so the machinations begin.

“Billions” highlights two people trying to destroy each other with very different strategies, tools, powers, and organizations at their disposal. That’s fascinating to watch.

Billions | 'More of a Target' Official Clip | Season 1 Episode 2

Rhoades and Axelrod have very different worlds they have to navigate and both have to deal with pressures within their own systems. It’s not a given they’ll stay on top long enough to defeat their foe, and so the pressure comes from within and without.

Remember how as a kid (and as an adult) you often wondered who’d win in a fight between Batman and Superman? “Billions” is exactly like that.

5. Loyalty, Ethics and Convictions

Which is most important to you? How these come into conflict with each other is just part of the human experience, but in “Billions” how these clash take on Shakespearean proportions.

For example, If your spouse committed corporate espionage to get ahead would you forgive them or divorce them? This show is a meditation on morality and the meaning of justice and the deep essential question of our times: if we give up our convictions and ethics just to win… what have we won?

6. Therapists As Villains

The role that therapists play in “Billions” (and there are three therapists in the show) is important and handled fairly. Imagine if the infamous Dr. Jennifer Melfi from “The Sopranos” actually worked for Tony Soprano and you get a sense of the complications faced by Dr. Wendy Rhoades as Ax Capital’s resident shrink and personal support to Bobby Axelrod.

Billions | 'Open Up the Book on Axe' Official Clip | Season 1 Episode 6

I always appreciated “Mad Men” for daring to show therapists as something others than a guiding light with Dr. Faye Miller’s work as a consumer research analyst. It’s interesting dramatic fodder to see psychologists as potential evildoers, using their powers for nefarious purposes, but not quite as obviously evil as, say, Dr. Lecter.

7. No Sex

It’s amazing to find a show like “Billions” on cable TV, much less network TV, that eschews sex as a plot-line (or plot-hole spackling). That’s not to say the show is overly dry, but it trusts itself enough to use sex and sex scenes that only make sense to the story and characters and not as, “Hey it’s been 15 minutes of screen time and so time to up our titty-game.”

Can ‘Billions’ Stay on Top for Long?

“The Americans” on FX has spun back up and so “Billions” might not last long on the throne in the “game of thrones” which is Peak TV but right now it’s the hottest show on television.

Check it out and let me know what you think.

Photo credits: Jeff Neumann/Showtime

Show More

4 Comments

  1. Sounds like an interesting look into the mindset of billionaires, who are often driven by competition to an obsessive degree. Personally, I’ve often wondered why people keep working so hard after making a fortune – why not just retire young and go live on a beach somewhere? I think the answer is that they’re not really driven by money but by the will to win. And there’s always someone new to beat.

    Glad to hear this isn’t a political propaganda show. I had written it off as such, but you’ve convinced me to give it a look.

  2. Fully caught up on Billions this month, and I agree with Christian in his assessment. It’s one of my top shows right now. I find myself always rooting for Ax … and it’s maybe it’s the free-market capitalist in me talking, but it’s hard not to cheer for Bobby Axelrod in his Galt’s Gultch battling against the government — who constantly think … “at some point, you’ve made too much money.”

    SPOILERS AHEAD

    I find the motivations of Ax more pure. He’s trying to make money for … well, himself … but not really. He’s a wealthy has he could possibly be. Bobby endeavors to make those who work for him better at what they do best: Figure out the way the financial world will turn. Ax is a genius; that’s how he made his money. He is cultivating fellow potential geniuses — and has found his first true same-level genius in Taylor, who is becoming less conflicted every day in applying her intelligence in a way that is measurable. Bobby sees his task as applying his/her genius in a way that works for both of them. Bobby gives her permission to see that outsmarting the market — and profiting them both — is the ultimate application of her intelligence and drive.

    Chuck (Paul Giamatti’s character) is motivated by more guttural and base instincts. He wears the holy cloak of the law, but he only wants to “get Bobby” to burst the bubble of his wife, who works for and admires Bobby. In fact, Chuck is abusing his authority for personal reasons. That’s more immoral than gaming the system to make money, which is what Bobby does.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button