BILLIONS, with all the caps

Episode 101

Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti star in BILLIONS, a show where the cat-and-mouse dynamics consume everything.

There’s this television series on Showtime called BILLIONS, in all capital letters. I do understand that’s just the stylized title card, but that’s how I like to think of it: a bold, confident show that demands a presence in all of our lives.

It’s a wonder that it hasn’t gotten the kind of thundering reception it deserves, though. It stars Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis, esteemed actors who can surely find the finest work but choose to do this series. It’s created by a New York Times writer, Andrew Ross Sorkin, and the writing team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien from Rounders–yes, Rounders, that fun Matt Damon/Edward Norton poker film from 1998.

BILLIONS’ dialogue is so unique, funny, and bizarre that I wonder if hedge fund high-rollers and district attorneys really talk like that. But no matter–I buy into this universe along with all its dazzling soap opera-ish allure.

The show’s premise is, admittedly, a bit ridiculous and thin. District attorney Chuck Rhoades (Giamatti) wants to arrest hedge fund CEO Bobby Axelrod (Lewis) for insider trading. Fueled by political ambition and personal jealousy (Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff) is a highly valued therapist for the hedge fund, Axe Capital), Rhoades is willing to do everything in his power to make sure Axelrod gets caught; Axelrod is willing to do everything in his power to make sure he doesn’t get caught. While we’re supposed to root for Rhoades, the guy on the right side of the law, the show makes it clear he’s flawed and privileged, and Axelrod, though clearly a villain, has embraced the American dream we all wish to capture.

It’s a classic cat-and-mouse game but with the visual splashes of Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, and the kind of dialogue and characterization that’s entirely unique to this show. I’m sure many viewers open their musings about BILLIONS with the hook that Paul Giamatti plays a guy who engages in S&M, but I suppose, shockingly, that’s probably the least interesting part of the show.

The show’s dialogue has often been described as “baroque” or “animalistic,” and really, I’ve never heard anything like it. There’s something so exhilarating about a show in a post-Diablo Cody world that dares to have a booming population of characters that frequently speak in a way that doesn’t quite resemble real people; for example, the characters sure love to reference the animal kingdom–everything from jungle beasts to octopi–with equal parts of self-awareness and spontaneity.

The characters also sell its pop culture references fit for a mid-life crisis without being too cringe-worthy. Case in point: an episode, titled “With or Without You,” not only references the U2 song but ends the episode with a montage set to the very song. It’s a show that doesn’t shy away from being cheesy as fuck and even manages to pull it off with as much emotional intensity as an episode-ending montage is meant to have.

There is some excellent supporting work here–Malin Akerman as Axelrod’s tough trophy wife, David Costabile as Axelrod’s right-hand man, Toby Leonard Moore and Condola Rashad as the bright-eyed lawyerly denizens at Rhoades’s district attorney office. But most notably it’s Asia Kate Dillon’s performance as Taylor Mason, a brilliant gender queer math whiz at Axe Capital, that steals every single scene they’re in in season two. What makes Taylor so compelling is how the show makes them likable and seemingly morally pure, but also uncomfortably and understandably loyal. Never for a moment does the show make Taylor feel like a gimmick; we and the other characters know that they identify as gender queer, but the point never becomes the show’s obsession.

The second to last episode of season two, “Golden Frog Time,” is one of the finest pieces of television I’ve seen and I believe, was its Emmy submission episode. It’s a shame that the Emmys didn’t recognize the show, as the episode is as thrilling of a Wall Street escapade as they come. But if you plan to watch any episode of BILLIONS, “Golden Frog Time” is it–it’s cleverly structured, written, and acted. And the episode joyously closes with Tom Petty’s “Even the Losers,” bookending an episode-long ride that feels emblematic of both a car crash and cruise control. Much like the show itself.

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Masterpiece Theater: for the Americans

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Bob Odenkirk stars as Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul, the Saul Goodman origin story that we didn’t know we needed.

White-hot hit drama Breaking Bad gave birth to the surprisingly subtle Better Call Saul, a spin-off that is so muted and so thinkpiece-unfriendly that it may have easily flown under the radar, save for its handful of Emmy nominations for its three modest seasons.

The Emmys paid attention to the right thing (for once): Better Call Saul is absolutely wonderful. It’s how I often imagine Call the Midwife to be like, but with a healthy mix of old school noir, Perry Mason, Murder She Wrote, Grantchester, and all the visual panache and the cathartic context of Breaking Bad.

Focusing on Breaking Bad’s scene-stealing criminal lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), Better Call Saul is mostly a prequel (and also sort of a sequel) to its meth dealing counterpart. The show tracks one man’s gradual transformation from scrappy, down-on-his-luck lawyer, Jimmy McGill to the slippery slick, strip mall lawyer, Saul Goodman.

In its three seasons so far, the show has explored the complex and antagonistic relationship between Jimmy and his brilliant lawyer brother, Chuck (brilliantly played by Michael McKean), who is suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, and the loving but sometimes frustrating relationship between Jimmy and his on-and-off girlfriend and very hard working lawyer, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). These relationships effectively form the soul of the show, gently weaving all the traits that make Jimmy human, yet showcasing all the vices that will inevitably transform him into Saul.

It wouldn’t be a Breaking Bad prequel without some connection to a threatening drug underworld. Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) returns in a more prominent role in this show, as his backstory and personal life have more space to thrive.

I started binging Breaking Bad after I finished the masterpiece that is The Sopranos. While there are arguments hinting otherwise, The Sopranos is the richest television drama series ever created. Breaking Bad, though aesthetically memorable, structurally ambitious, and cleverly made, is also, admittedly, blissfully gimmicky and frustrating. With Breaking Bad, though, showrunner Vince Gilligan has created a one-of-a-kind universe with a glorious wasteland of characters, storylines, and premises that its audience simply needs to accept–some of it rings true, and some of it leaves us all feeling a bit cheated.

Better Call Saul, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from Breaking Bad’s deficiencies. There’s a charming glassy-eyed naivete (if that’s even the right word) to Better Call Saul that makes it sharper, sweeter, more intelligent, more endearing, and more pleasant. It doesn’t mean it’s not a dark show–it can sometimes be as emotional and emotionally violent as Breaking Bad--but it’s smart enough to teeter on the edges of moral ambiguity without drowning its audience in a series-long ethics debate.

Ultimately, Better Call Saul is an eccentric philosophical musing about the law and how to execute it, done with all the bravado of a used car salesman. It’s a show about lawyers, who do their job, think about their job, talk about their job, bleed their job, live their job. And, in an expansive universe of cute lawyer shows, it feels exceedingly rare to watch a law firm workplace drama that has dimensions beyond hookups, breakups, and the occasional trial. Better Call Saul is to lawyers, as Whiplash is to jazz drummers–I think.

I don’t think Better Call Saul will ever have the same astronomical mass cool appeal as Breaking Bad, but I do hope it finds an audience beyond the folks with a geriatric sweater knitter soul. It’s a show that feels like it could have been on Masterpiece Theatre–in the time slot right after Call the Midwife, I suppose–if it were a British production. Yet, as fate would have it, it’s on AMC, and one could only hope that the Breaking Bad and Mad Men fans someday find it worthwhile.