It has every hallmark of a successful show: talented, popular actors, an interesting location, a complex story, critical approval, and an immediacy which puts it in the middle of the zeitgeist of post-07 suspicion of financial institutions and the men who work in them. And yet Billions, its third episode airing January 31st, has not really done much except drum up praise from critics.
The story is that of Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades, the US Attorney for New York, vs. Damien Lewis’ Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, a self-made hedge fund billionaire. Rhoades is old money – the son of the previous US Attorney for New York, with whom he has a very creepy and complicated relationship – and Axelrod is a poor kid from the Lower East Side who built his own empire over which he and his wife Lara (Malin Akerman) wield unmitigated power. Complicating matters is Chuck’s wife Wendy, the in-house psychiatrist and performance coach at Axelrod’s Connecticut firm. This is a show based on two men playing 3D chess, and it is those schemes and countermoves that make it so interesting.
But watching the show’s opening two episodes feels like watching a very well-constructed simulacrum of good TV; the elements are there, it simply feels… forced. Take Rhoades’ BDSM fetish for example. The moment the black screen opens, we are confronted by the scene of the US Attorney on his back, bound and gagged, with an unseen dominatrix (revealed later to be Wendy) pressing a stiletto and burning a cigarette into his chest. Great – for shock value. While Rhoades’ fetish may give the showrunners interesting places to take notions of his desire for control verse subservience, it does not really add anything to the show other than sexing it up. Because a show about finance and the shady goings on of the rich and powerful is not interesting, sexing it up for shock value deals with that, right?
There is an argument that taking the audience into the bedrooms as well as the boardrooms of these men and those around them is novel; why should complicated sexual lives be the purview of Gossip Girl-esque teenagers and shows catering to and featuring those in their 20s? To me, it feels gimmicky, a deliberate reaction to House of Cards’ depiction of complicated unlikeable people and their messy lives, sexual or otherwise.
The central dynamic between Rhoades and Axelrod leaves viewers caught between two men who are not totally likeable, but that is nothing new. Could it be that ‘Difficult Men’, one of the driving engines of the renaissance in TV over the last half decade – Walter White, Don Draper, Frank Underwood, Lucious Lyon – is just another trope that audiences are expecting? Or could it be that in its first two episodes, Billions forgot the value of giving us a reason to care about its characters? There is no moral compass, or sympathetic character onto whom we can latch, at least at the start, to steer us through the waters of high-flying capital. Perhaps this lack is something that will go on to distinguish Billions from an increasingly crowded field of great and good TV, or maybe the producers will give us a show featuring characters with overwritten dialogue we do not really have a reason to care about.