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.