There are so many good shows on TV right now. Ever since actors started to realize that there was incredible depth of material available in television, and stopped thinking that TV acting was a step down from movies, we’ve been treated to an amazing caliber of actors appearing on the screens in our homes, and not just in movie theaters. A recent example of this is Paul Giamatti, who came to television to play Chuck Rhoades in Billions for Showtime.
I’ll say straight up that this is not the type of show I would have chosen for myself. Watching two alpha-males bump chests in the world of high-flying hedge-fund finance is not necessarily my idea of a rollicking good time. But since the boy works in finance, everyone in his office was watching it and saying it was really good. And since I do enjoy both Giamatti and Damian Lewis, I thought…why not.
So here’s the story: Damian Lewis plays Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, who came from a rough upbringing, but now runs Axe Capital a hedge fund that seems to be able to do no wrong. Axe is ruthless and nearly always right. He is also likely dealing in insider trading – something we find out about in the pilot. When the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York – Chuck Rhoades – gets a ping from the SEC that seems to indicate this, he begins a season-long hunt for Axe. This is made complicated by the fact that Chuck’s wife Wendy is the in-house psychologist for Axe Capital who has been there since before she and Chuck were married. And that’s it – your big three and the tension that plays between them for the season. It’s sort of like a love triangle, except that it’s not. This is not to leave out Axe’s wife Lara, whose life has also changed from being a girl from a working class family to a high-status restaurateur in partnership with her sister.
From what I’ve read, this show is not quite the indictment of Wall Street foul play that it could have been, and it also shows the government’s pursuit of justice in a poor light. Instead, it’s a big soap opera that happens to center on a Wall Street billionaire and a U.S. Attorney. Like any glimpse into typical American life might do. 😉 It’s also an interesting education for those of us who are not entirely in the know about different ways the stock market can be played – between this show and The Big Short, I feel like I have a much better understanding about how big banks and hedge funds are playing with and manipulating markets.
So if it’s all just a big soap opera, do we at least have first class actors to emote for us on screen? As I said at the beginning of this review – yep. Giammati is terrific – he goes from a baseline of slightly peeved, to gleeful, furious and tender over the scope of any given episode. His Chuck is one to hide his emotions, and as viewers, we are the lucky ones who get to see this played out. Damian Lewis is also intense, but in a different way – his Axe cannot afford to be publicly emotional with the wider world, except for the manic energy that he needs to convey and pass along to his traders in the course of their work. His character is always hiding something, and a lot of time, that’s his emotions, which seem to be constantly simmering below the surface. Later in the season, things happen that mean his emotions are set free, and we get to see the wild, manic, and occasionally brutish Axe whose baser emotions have taken hold of him.
But while the male characters have the larger splashier roles, it is perhaps the two female leads who are the MVPs of the season. Malin Akerman who plays Lara is finally given a meaty role as the wife to Axe, mother to their children, and fierce protector of all that she has gained. She is willing to do anything to protect her men, and while she may not be as “in the know” as the other characters, she is given her own motivations for her fury at the investigation into Axe, which is fantastic. So often this kind of character is merely echoing her husband’s emotional touchstones, but her life is touched upon in a separate and also deeply intrusive way. She is fighting not just for her boys, but for her own independence and for her family connections.
Even more amazing is Maggie Siff as Wendy, who in addition to being a fellow Maggie (who I must support on principle), is given the most amazing emotional tug of war to play over the course of the season. She and her husband have an amazing bond that is emotional, sexual, familial – their life together is mutually supportive and modern. But at the same time, there’s a power imbalance, because she’s the one bringing home the big paychecks at the end of the day because of where she works – something that could be (and probably is a little) difficult for a man like Chuck to handle, considering he’s already near the top of his game in the world of government law. But Wendy and Chuck make it work for them. Wendy must also make her relationship with Axe be as good as possible – if she’s not performing for him or the traders who work for him, what worth does she have? But they’ve been together as a professional team for around 15 years, and Wendy’s constant struggle to put up a Chinese wall and not let information lead through to either side about what’s going on with Chuck’s investigation or Axe’s trading strategies and secrets could be torturous to watch, except Wendy is so in control of herself. Wendy is the kind of person I want to emulate – a total cool customer with an amazingly calm view of the world and her place in it.
So. That’s a lot of words about a show without saying much about it. I would hate to spoil something that is so delicious and on the verge of being a guilty pleasure. And I’ve said nothing of the supporting cast, many of whom are recognizable, and terrific. If you have Showtime, or access to the Showtime streaming app and are looking for something a little different…at least give the pilot a try. It may not be for you, but if you like it…it’s twisty-turny ride that is worth the time. And it’s already been renewed for a second season. So there’s more to come!
Details: Billions, on Showtime streaming or On-Demand