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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    New series ‘Billions’ tries a little too hard

    A still from the official trailer for the show “Billions.” The next episode airs Tuesday night on Showtime.

    The very first scene of Showtime’s new series, “Billions” has Paul Giamatti tied up and on the floor while a dominatrix steps on his chest with tall, black heels and then burns him with a cigarette.

    This is not a typical opening scene for a pilot episode, but it works surprisingly well for a series that explores the ideas of pride, power and dominance.

    “Billions” stars Giamatti as New York U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades and Damian Lewis, former star of “Homeland,” as hedge-fund guru Bobby “Axe” Axelrod. Rounding out the main cast are their wives: Maggie Siff (“Sons of Anarchy”) as Wendy Rhoades, wife of Chuck and in-house psychiatrist at Axelrod’s firm, and Malin Akerman (“Watchmen”) as Lara Axelrod, Bobby’s wife.

    Giamatti shines like always, and Lewis is given the chance to further prove his acting chops after leaving “Homeland.” Siff and Akerman also do well in their respective roles, and provide balance to all the testosterone constantly thrown around by the two leads.

    The series pits Giamatti and Lewis against each other in a constant showdown that feels like the characters are just measuring a certain body part.

    At the beginning of the series, Rhoades is put on the trail of Axelrod who may be guilty of financial crimes. Rhoades doesn’t want to pursue the case until Axelrod makes a definite error to avoid sacrificing his 81-0 record in financial crime cases.

    Some aspects of the series work well, others, not so much. One reason Axelrod is seen as so charitable is that he pays the college tuition of his former colleagues’ children after said colleagues were killed in the 9/11 attacks. This feels a bit weird, and certainly unnecessary. This is supposed to be a story about corruption and corporate greed, so using 9/11 as the motive behind Bobby’s charitable endeavors feels out of place—like laziness out of writers who couldn’t come up with anything better.

    The show is complex at times, but not deep. It uses plenty of financial jargon that the average viewer can’t really follow, but this makes the overall feeling of the series more authentic and gives a better sense that the characters actually know what they’re talking about. On the other hand, there isn’t much of a message on display here. It’s more about sheer entertainment.

    “Billions” doesn’t give much commentary on the power of wealth and the downsides of capitalism, and it’s apparent need to reel off cheesy one-liners tends to water down any actual insight that is trying to be offered.

    Axelrod has such a glorious look in his eyes when he asks “When did it become a crime to succeed in this country?” before Rhoades lays it all out on the table: “A good matador doesn’t try to kill a fresh bull. You wait until he’s been stuck a few times.” I’m all for a good metaphor, but come on.

    Giamatti and Lewis don’t appear on-screen together very often, but they still play well off one another and complement each other well, each bringing a unique perspective to the Wall Street world the series is immersed in. It isn’t always easy to feel sympathetic toward these rich, self-obsessed characters, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fun to watch.

    Overall, this is a well-made show, and the performances alone make it worth a look. It’s just trying a little bit too hard to be deep.

    “Billions” airs Sunday nights on Showtime.

    Follow Alec Kuehnle on Twitter.

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