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In Billions — which hopes to comfort your loss of The Affair Sunday nights on Showtime — Damian Lewis stars as Bobby Axelrod, a hedge-fund billionaire who favors tight T-shirts as formal wear and likes Metallica cranked up to 11. His nemesis in life is Paul Giamatti’s United States Attorney Chuck Rhodes, who loathes Axelrod’s contempt for the rules and slippery business practices. In the first hour, these two are set up on a collision course to go head-to-head, with mutually assured destruction always a possibility.
Billions, created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, is set up to be a high-quality, insider look at insider trading, with the promise that we’ll see a greedy egomaniac brought low. But to its credit, the show complicates things nicely. For every macho-creep thing done by Axe — that’s what everyone who really knows Axelrod calls him — he’s also shown to be a frequently generous guy, loyal to old friends and an active participant in a solid marriage to Malin Akerman’s Lara. When you combine this with Lewis’s excellent performance, at once steely, warm, and tart, Axe becomes an engaging figure.
On the other side of the dramatic equation, Giamatti’s Rhodes doesn’t fare as well. After he initially announces he’s devoting the efforts of his office and his own time to bringing Axe to justice, Rhodes spends much of the time playing catch-up, chasing after his nemesis. Rhodes gets angrier and crankier, and Giamatti over-works his two familiar modes: muttered menace and ballistic bombast.
The writing is uneven. In one of the early episodes, it took a full hour for Rhodes to realize a fake-out Axe had executed that we, as viewers, knew virtually from the start of the episode — the suspense was nil. But then there are numerous other fine touches, such as a subplot in which wife Lara protects Axe’s interests by conducting her own clever vendetta without her husband’s knowledge. It succeeds in giving the Lara character her own independent strength, and is a satisfying narrative twist.
But another twist that may be difficult to buy as the series proceeds is a key character with ties to both Axe and Rhodes. Maggie Siff plays a therapist hired by Axe Capital as its in-house “performance coach”; she also happens to be married to Rhodes. Thus, the wife of Axe’s worst enemy is someone he confides in. The role succeeds to the extent it does largely on the strength of Siff’s performance — it’s good to see her get a big, interesting role after her fine but smaller appearances on Mad Men, and her all-over-the-map character as it was written on Sons of Anarchy.
Billions will succeed to the extent that viewers want to tune in each week to watch the tests of wills and wiliness between Axe and Rhodes. But I’m also pretty sure that there’ll be times when you’ll be impatient, and feel the same sentiment one character expresses to Rhodes: “Will you get this sonofabitch already?”
Billions premieres Sunday, Jan. 17 at 10 p.m. on Showtime. However, you can watch the premiere episode below now.