Magazine article Variety

Billions

Magazine article Variety

Billions

Article excerpt

Billions

series: Showtime. Sun. Jan. 17.10 p.m.

writers: Brian Koppelman. David Levien, Andrew Ross Sorkin

starring: Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Maggie Siff. Malin Akerman

"Billions" won't be for everyone, but for a substantial number of viewers, this frisky Wall Street drama will be hard to resist.

If you are immune to the many charms of Paul Giamatti's work, and the endless ways in which his "Billions" character displays intelligence and irritation through a series of perfectly deployed glares, this tale of high-powered hedgefund players and the lawyers they battle may not be up your alley. Giamatti plays Chuck Rhoades, a well-to-do U.S. Attorney for New York who feels compelled to rein in Wall Street excesses, with Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod, a hotshot megabillionaire who can't resist throwing his might and money around in ways that make for bad PR, and bring scrutiny from law enforcement.

That description raises the question of whether you'll be able to work up any sympathy for the one-percenters locked in combat in this slick series. Many regular folks who've witnessed the frightening fallout of some of Wall Street's high-stakes games may find that the subject matter itself is a deal breaker. Just about every character in "Billions" has, at the very least, a trust fund and a few million in the bank - but many have substantially more. Whatever their headaches, the day-to-day lives of these hedge-fund guys, especially Bobby, make Don Draper's lifestyle look like a monk's.

And it is a guys' enclave. Especially in its first few episodes, "Billions" presents one of the whitest and most male casts in recent memory, which is notable in part because TV has become markedly more diverse in the past few years. In the first six episodes, a couple of scenes feature a female trader whose boldness is regarded very differently from that of her male peers, and there are grindingly obvious - and not always successful - attempts to give the women in the narrative something to do other than work for or be married to the men. But going in, a viewer has to accept that this is yet another cable drama in which women and people of color don't get to occupy much of the prime story real estate.

Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) is both Chuck's wife and Bobby's shrink, which means she gets at least a modicum of screen time; it also means she needs a stiff drink or three at the end of every day. Siff is great, but so far she supplies grace notes in what is essentially a mano-amano struggle between Chuck and Bobby. Appendage-measuring is the predominant parlor game here, and despite capable work from Siff and Malin Akerman, who plays Bobby's steely wife, it's hard to see that changing any time soon.

But enough with the caveats: "Billions" is shamelessly entertaining. Don't come to it looking for an in-depth commentary on the stratification of American society or the pitfalls of late-stage capitalism. This is a generally well-crafted soap opera about rich people, one that crackles with energy and insider knowledge of its well-heeled territory and the narcissistic insiders who live there. The series is so packed with smartly observed details and terrific performances that it's easy to think of it as a more macho, linear version of "The Good Wife": Instead of observing the complicated professional lives and personal vendettas roiling various law firms in Chicago, the Showtime drama revolves around financiers and the tough New York prosecutors looking to knock them down a peg or two.

The most salient fact about "Billions" may be that it's funny. …

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