If networks practiced truth in advertising, Showtime’s slogan would be “imperfect and perfectly watchable.” Shows like The Affair, Shameless, Homeland, Masters of Sex, Ray Donovan, and Billions, the network’s latest series, which begins Sunday night, have strong production values, intriguing settings, complex characters, adult themes, and glaring flaws. But these shows have enough polish and oomph—and by oomph I mostly mean sex—to make their flaws more or less forgivable, like a Coca-Cola brine on a rack of ribs, which never won’t be trashy but does taste pretty good. Showtime shows are less excellent than they aspire to be and more fun than they ought to be.
Billions is quintessentially Showtime: It uses its of-the-moment premise and its blue-chip cast to tell a story that is both thoroughly enjoyable and completely eye-rolling. It focuses on a brewing confrontation between Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis), the billionaire head of high-flying Connecticut hedge fund Axe Capital, and U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), hellbent on sending Axe to prison, as much to benefit his own career as to expose Axe’s wrongdoing. The show, which was co-created by financial reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin and the writing team of David Levien and Brian Koppelman (Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen), may or may not be influenced by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s prosecution of hedge funder Steven A. Cohen. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is intentional, because it gives Billions a jolt of verisimilitude.
The premiere begins with Rhoades being administered to by a dominatrix, who puts a cigarette out on his chest and then pisses on the burn. The show is into overdetermined symbolism, sometimes involving dogs: Axe is inspired to purchase an $83 million Hamptons beach house over sound objections after seeing his sad, newly spayed family dog. Axe won’t be neutered. Rhoades hectors and lectures a Brooklynite into cleaning up after his dog with his bare hands, as if there is any New Yorker who would not tell Rhoades where to shove it instead. There’s gratuitous sex (lesbians and blow) and dirty talk (“What is it about a woman taking it into her mouth after a little raw-dogging [that is such a turn on]?” Axe’s right-hand man wonders. The “it” in question is his asshole) but also two intact, uniquely functioning marriages and hardly any coke-fueled Wolf of Wall Street–style bad behavior. It’s silly and sincere; it’s ambitious and ridiculous. It’s a herky-jerky rubbernecking through a high-flying world, rendered inexactly. Billions is a junk bond.
Lewis’ Axe grew up working class and attended Hofstra. He prefers expensive hoodies and his regular slice place to bespoke suits and the Four Seasons. He’s a billionaire many times over but enjoys a reputation as a homegrown New York folk hero for how he behaved in the aftermath of 9/11: As the only surviving partner of his firm—shades of Cantor Fitzgerald—he is paying for the educations of his colleagues’ children. His sterling reputation makes him a juicy target for Rhoades, who grew up in New York’s moneyed realms and is keen to be governor. Rhoades has been aggressively prosecuting white-collar crime, insisting on prison sentences for suits, a strict upholding of the law that makes him both righteous and unbearable. As the show begins, Rhoades learns of some Axe-linked insider trading, which he is eager to follow up on because it would make his career: Axe has his eye on Rhoades, because billionaire hedge-funders pay attention to U.S. attorneys. Complicating Rhoades and Axe’s pas de deux is Wendy (Maggie Siff), Rhoades’ wife and the longtime in-house psychologist at Axe Capital, an emotional savant who keeps the traders performing optimally in a hypercompetitive environment.
What is oddest about Billions is how thoroughly inessential it makes itself on its very pressing subject: money. The show is not precise enough to be satisfying as a strictly anthropological examination of the customs and mores of extreme wealth, but it is nearly agnostic about the ethics of mass accumulation. The show is entirely unambiguous that Axe bent the law but completely ambiguous as to whether he did anything wrong. At some point, ambiguity is merely confusion, and Billions seems confused about what it makes of hedge-funders: Are they greedy and rapacious or a species apart? Billions does very little to clarify the relationship between Wall Street and Main Street, instead heightening the sense that hedge-fund billionaires operate in another universe, where money is so copious that fines in the billions are slaps on the wrists—chits powerful people use to ding other powerful people, who seemingly have no connection, for good or ill, to regular Americans.
Insofar as the show ever makes the case against insider trading, it comes from the mouth of Rhoades, whose own venal careerism renders him a much more grungy and ethically suspect character than Axe. Billions has some stock stockbroker misbehavior—Axe’s right-hand man, Wax, is a crude capitalist with a handlebar goatee; a junior trader uses an AK-47 to disturb some deer that had the audacity to breathe the same air as him—but Rhoades and Axe have been written against type. Rhoades is a grinder, a prig, and a prick. His quirk—that taste for S&M—is almost laughably schematic: All day he likes to dominate, because really he just wants to be dominated. Meanwhile Axe is controlled and all-seeing, not quite believable as a New Yawker or a father, but otherwise an unflappable Zen master. He’s the world conqueror, while Rhoades, who may have the law and justice on his side, seems like the petty striver.
Still, get Lewis, Giamatti, Siff, and Malin Akerman, who plays Axe’s wife, on one show, start throwing around billions of dollars, mansions in the Hamptons, S&M, corporate takeovers, legal intrigue, and boldface names, and you’ve got something pretty enticing: the Page Six of TV shows.