A close friend of mine recently commented how the current landscape of TV – including cable channels and streaming services – offers an embarrassment of riches so diverse and overflowing with quality that it has become practically insurmountable to try and tackle even those shows considered essential viewing. Amidst the quarantine, those of us blessed with an abundance of downtime may still find it daunting to navigate the myriad of options when vacillating between the various streaming sites and channels, inundated with binge-worthy options practically oozing out of our devices.
But even amidst this smorgasbord of viewing opportunities, there are shows so fundamentally excellent that they rise like the proverbial cream, overshadowing their rivals by the sheer quality of their execution. Unfortunately, quality alone doesn’t always guarantee widespread success or universal appeal and sometimes, even the best television ends up being marginalized by the general public in favor of more populist, meme-friendly shows.
Billions – a Showtime exclusive – is one such ignored show. Currently about to begin its fifth season this Sunday, Billions is a taught, smartly written, character-driven drama about power, corruption, interpersonal relationships and the collision of these elemental components that invariably leads to chemical, often incendiary reactions. The show centers on two seemingly eternal rivals: Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), a hedge fund owner and self-made billionaire with a Machiavellian, winner-take-all ideology that fuels the nucleus of his character and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), a hyper-intelligent, ambitious U.S. Attorney who initially targets Axelrod’s potentially criminal malfeasance to buoy his own career.
Lewis plays Axelrod as a ruthless but magnetic genius unfettered by contemporary morality and unrestrained by social norms. Instead of wearing a suit, he dons casual attire and moves with a lithe, predatory gait, as if eternally unsatisfied and in a perpetual state of predatory hunger; a classic by-the-bootstraps self-made man whose rise from humble beginnings has given him a sizeable chip on his shoulder. By contrast, Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades is a child of privilege; a doughy public servant who lacks the boyish good looks and rock star swagger of Axelrod but compensates with a pronounced intellect and acerbic wit that makes him just as captivating.
Complicating matters further is Chuck’s wife Wendy – played by Maggie Siff – a brilliant psychologist who works exclusively for Axe Capital, having helped Bobby Axelrod build the company by providing guidance and emotional nourishment to a building filled mostly with egocentric man-children. This overlap causes immediate tension as Wendy is as smart and cunning as the two most important men in her life and is consistently forced to navigate the tumultuous space between them on a regular basis. At one point in the series she concisely refuses to be a ‘shuttlecock’ batted around by the two warring men and has the intellect and the insight to check their egos at any given time.
Beyond these central characters is a smattering of supporting players, some of whom have grown to becoming integral to the ongoing quality of the show. At the top of this list is Taylor Mason, a fascinating and razor-sharp minded individual who quickly rises to the top of Bobby’s employee pool and proves to be somebody as smart (or perhaps even smarter) than Axelrod himself. Played by the talented non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillion (John Wick 3), Taylor Mason is a mathematical prodigy who sees every problem through the lens of cool logic and analytics, breaking down even the most potentially emotional complications with an detached yet humane manner that makes for a profoundly compelling foil to Bobby’s more maverick, devil-may-care style of investing.
What truly differentiates Billions from even some of the best television out there however is the writing, which is smart, tightly woven, and forges very real and nuanced characters who are in an unending state of flux as they forge alliances, break bonds, and navigate a complex, labyrinthine web of intersecting wealth, power, and politics. Instead of heroes or pristine, virtuous protagonists, Billions gives us people who occupy that grey area of humanity; philanthropists who are charitable in public but merciless in private; politicians who preach fortitude and morality even while breaking the law to gain additional purchase. And yet even at their worst, the complexities of these fully formed individuals insulate them from becoming caricatures or two-dimensional soap opera players. As you watch the show you’ll invariably choose sides; perhaps you’ll root for Axelrod because his screw-you approach to finance – which places him at odds with its more traditional gatekeepers – is infectious and his 3D chess is mesmerizing to behold as he manipulates, cajoles and invariably cheats his way through a notoriously cutthroat business. Or maybe you’ll find yourself sympathizing with Rhoades as he tries to bring the enormous ego and unremittent greed that fuels Axe Capital to heel while keeping his loving but complicated marriage from imploding.
Even more impressive is how unpredictable the show has been over the course of four seasons. Alliances shatter, intimate relationships are betrayed, and characters often shift abruptly for motivations ranging from decency to self-preservation. And yet, as jarring as some of these seismic shifts are, they are never cheap or unearned dramatic flourished but rather the result of a carefully scripted narrative that allows us to understand (and often sympathize) why these decisions are made by these flawed but so very compelling individuals.
Billions will never be a zeitgeist-type TV show as it lacks the bombast and melodrama that seems to fuel so much of our entertainment these days yet, for those looking for slow-burn drama buoyed by some of the best-written characters around, this show is required viewing and is arguably the best drama series currently on TV, rivaling even AMC’s Better Call Saul. (Which just finished another brilliant season)
Billions airs on Showtime on Sundays evenings and is available through Showtime on Demand.