From the moment that “Billions” was conceived as a series at Showtime, there was something in the air that suggested the network could have an enormous hit here. You just had to look at the connections between this and “Too Big to Fail” behind the scenes, and also the stellar cast led by Damian Lewis, Maggie Siff, and Paul Giamatti. There was absolutely nothing here to be concerned about.
It is because of these three, especially Siff, that the show has some strength in its premiere. What it lacks at the moment is a little bit of an edge or a perspective. It is hard to figure out who you want to root for per se, or what the tone of the show should be. It’s not clever enough just yet to be a crime thriller, but a little too dry to be a character study.
Giamatti is at the center of the series as Chuck Rhoades, a powerful US Attorney who is known for getting Wall Street powerhouses behind bars for their crimes. His latest target is perhaps his most ambitious: Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Lewis), one of the wealthiest hedge fund guys out there and someone who, on the surface, seems like a hero. He survived September 11 unlike the rest of his firm, and has given countless money back to charity over the years. There are definite echoes of Nicholas Brody in this man, in particular in how the show walks the like between perceiving him as a hero and someone with potential for something so much darker underneath.
Axelrod spends this pilot episode preparing to make a purchase that could draw the attention of Rhoades, and lo and behold it does. The difficulty here is primarily that he has to have the right evidence, and also has to be sure to jump at the right time. The other issue is that his wife Wendy (Siff) works for Axelrod. This element is surprisingly not a cheap move that damages the series; instead, it offers up stakes for her marriage, and also in how Rhoades chooses to operate.
Over the course of this first season we could see “Billions” as a hyper-intelligent crime thriller, and a character study that makes us almost want to root for both men despite their opposition to one another. We just hope that along the way, the show is able to inject a little more and character quirks into its writing, that way to at least keep this from being similar to every other similar drama out there. The performances are clearly there, but this is a show that needs some charm to go underneath all that cash. Grade: B-.
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