I Liked Him More as Jerry Heller: On Showtime’s Billions

Billions tries to outthink its audience, but simply embarrasses itself instead.
By    February 10, 2016


Evan McGarvey knows Aaron Sorkin is secretly police.

Ostensibly a showdown at the Dow Jones Corral, Showtime’s Billions pits Damian Lewis’s Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod—working-class hedge fund giant and the only survivor of his 9/11-devestated firm—against Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades, a blue-blood US Attorney with a perfect prosecutorial record and an enthusiasm for BDSM. Axelrod’s firm, Axe Capital, has surreal—possibly criminally obtained—wealth. Rhodes wants Axelrod’s pelt both to advance his career, and to apparently appease some deep Freudian issues with his father.

Lewis’s Axelrod broods in luxury knitwear, buys eight-figure beach houses, and tries to redeem himself by keeping his childhood pizza parlor in Brooklyn afloat. Prepare for a monologue about paper routes and tomato cultivars, America. His performance goes for glacial but lands on ‘indigestion.’

And Giamatti? He puts his effective beta-male spasms to work on a character in an implausibly torn position: his wife Wendy, played by the uniformly excellent Maggie Siff, works for Axe as the firm’s in-house shrink, and his father (Jeffrey DeMunn) is some undefined former financial big wig who harangues his son to go after Axe for … reasons!

The supporting cast fares no better. The braggy, frequently laughable dialogue falls on all. David Costabile, best known for mournfully taking a bullet from Jesse on “Breaking Bad,” supplies a cavalcade of dick jokes as Axe’s right hand man (and this is the kind of show in which characters say ‘right hand man’ or ‘player’ and really mean it). Malin Akerman, as Axe’s wife Lara, has little to do beside navigate the Real Housewives sphere of Greenwich and describe her siblings as “sibs.”

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The interchangeable sharks who work for Axe all confess their inadequacies and envy to Wendy. Rhoades’s lawyers all yearn for an exit strategy to a fancy firm or to Washington. Plots center on bullying frigid old money WASPs and dazzling hicks who work for companies that make actual consumer products. It’s Entourage with a University of Phoenix MBA.

So why does this C-list ‘prestige drama’ feel like a punch to the groin?

It’s not impossible to humanize wealth. No one begrudges, for instance, Drake or Serena. Each has otherworldly talent, cultivated over years and tested, publically, in front of millions (or, maybe, hey, billions!). You make an astonishing album? You dominate a sport? You invent a medical device that will drastically improve the health of America’s elderly? Go with God to Maui and to the dealership.

So while Billions luxuriates in the imagery of wealth—a six-figure car in every garage; quips about some rare bourbon—it simply won’t show its work as to how these characters are so deft, so savvy, so brilliant.  It settles for makeshift salvos of catch phrases. “Short squeeze!” everyone hisses in one episode! “Whenever you can, put a corporation in your MOUTH!” urges Axe in another.

The ingenuity required to try to roast those in ‘financial services’ is minimal. We’ve got thirty years of cartoons from which to pull: the lax bros who can barely read a financial statement, flopped into drop 7 suits and treated like prodigies; the mid-level grinders, chomping on a Nicorette, ransoming pension funds to juice a return; the inscrutable assistants who “know someone” at every restaurant, prep school and brothel; and the titan himself, simultaneously serene and atavistic, listening for ‘the numbers’ to chime like cathedral bells.  

But we are not the babes of the Reagan era. We’ve had twenty years of Michael Lewis books and the work of journalists like show-creator Andrew Ross Sorkin (who needs to hang his head for a while after this mess) breaking down P/E ratios, mortgage backed securities, flash trading, OPEC, outsourcing, game theory, and the actual—difficult, intellectual, fraught—work that goes into generating tremendous amounts of money.

The target audience for all things financial is, I’d argue, comprehensively better informed than it was twenty, even five, years ago. And sure, showing someone at a Bloomberg terminal isn’t as natively cinematic as someone shooting a gun, but industry portrayals have caught up.  In 1987, Stone’s Wall Street felt as gauzy as The King And I. In 2011, the deeply intelligent Margin Call made banking feel as tangible and as harrowing as digging coal.

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Billions wants it both ways. It wants ‘edgy’ characters and the chance to hold court on how the taut, dynamic world of high finance really works. But it fails at both. It plagiarizes the first half—with his love of hypnotic anecdotes and self-fiction, Axe is really just a poor man’s Don Draper; Rhoades’s tantrums and self-sabotage are pure Walter White—and flunks the second. Think of the consequences. If we should read Billions as pure soap, a show utterly disconnected from reality, fair enough. We can dismiss it as redundant, reductive, and devoid of all wit. But, and here’s the rub, if Billions and its creators aspire for that zeitgeist-y, this-is-how-the-sausage-gets-made, energy, the show does not merely fail, it plays both its subjects and its audience for fools. If its goal involves one atom of seriousness, Bernie Bros all we should be.

The fourth episode opens with one of Axe’s portfolio managers, drunk and depressed, taking an automatic weapon to some deer eating his plants. After springing him from the cops, Axe asks him why he’s decided to empty a clip into the Connecticut underbrush. The sad millionaire responds:

“How can things that dumb have the gall to occupy the same space that I do?”

Right back at you, boss.

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