The opening scene of Showtime’s Billions was unexpected, to say the very least. Emmy Award-winning actor Paul Giamatti is bound in rope BDSM-style, a dominatrix in a sharp-heeled leather boot stamps a cigarette out in his burly tuft of chest hair and there’s, of course, the degrading dirty talk and roughness, but then she urinates on him. Perhaps “unexpected” is a little tame. “Off-putting” does the trick.
And it’s not like I haven’t seen my fair share of jarring moments on television, the majority of which, let’s be honest, have come from Game of Thrones. But that kind of introduction could be enough to send some viewers sprinting. I stuck around, knowing that there must have been a purpose behind its inclusion. Right?
Billions attempted an answer to my question, and many others I had throughout the episode, but the pick-up was slow. As selfish as it sounds, in a drama series, I want to be thrown into the world that’s been built. Shove me forward, catapult me into a situation I never thought I’d be in before, drive your foot into my lumbar and kick me through the threshold. Make me want to be there, but please don’t confuse me.
In the first fifteen minutes of Billions, it felt like I got an invitation to a party where everyone was speaking a different language. I didn’t know how I should feel a connection to the people I was looking at, or why I should care to know what they were saying. It could also be equated to what it’s like walking in a new pair of heels: in the first few steps, you look and feel like a baby deer testing out the topography of the ground, but then you settle in the swing of things, stomping confidently into the pavement. Yeah, Billions’s pilot episode was much like that.
Thankfully, I got comfortable and adjusted to the environment and its energy, and found myself enjoying the experience of the soapy Showtime drama.
Damian Lewis (Homeland) as billionaire almost-bad boy Bobby “Axe” Axelrod is the kind of anti-hero I love. Sweet-talking, certain and savvy. He’s even generous and selfless, as he’s dedicated a part of his life and assets to the families of his colleagues who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Whether there are shady ulterior motivates at play, we’ve yet to learn. But turn your back on Axelrod, give any indication you might compromise his grand, yet-to-be-revealed plans, and he’ll slash you down to size. He’s not totally heartless, but he’s sure as hell no saint.
Paul Giamatti’s justice-seeking, U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades is unyielding and slightly animal. Rhoades is visceral, a true man of command. He has a squeaky-clean 81-0 record that he intends to keep up, ideally indefinitely, even if it leaves him with burst capillaries and a sweat-drenched forehead. Though he’s well-spoken and steadfast, there’s a quality to him that feels he’s always on the precipice of an outburst. That nuanced aspect of a character who waivers for no one is something I’d love to see explored deeper as the show progresses.
Billions‘s central focus is the mounting tension between Axelrod and Rhoades. There’s a scene – one I believe uncovers both the show’s gusto and its potential for fantastic future episodes – between the two bull-headed men that can only be described as the human version of a Tom-Jerry spat, claws at the ready if a full-fledged attack is deemed necessary. It also resulted in what could easily become one of the show’s trademark quotes, like “I am the danger” had in Breaking Bad. “What’s the point of having ‘f**k-you’ money if you never say ‘f**k you?’” Axelrod says in that eerily calm voice an argument can bring out in a person. Personally, I can’t wait for the moment Billions boils over into an all-out, WWE-reminiscent Axelrod v. Rhoades verbal smack-down.
As far as the women of the show are concerned, we have separate but equal counterparts to our leading men. And conveniently, the gals are the guys’ wives. Both Maggie Siff (Mad Men) as Wendy Rhoades, in-house psychologist for Axe Capital, and Malin Akerman (Trophy Wife, Sin City Saints) as Lara Axelrod are exceptionally strong. Moving forward, I hope to see Wendy as a player and not a pawn in the cat-mouse chase toward Bobby Axelrod, and to see Lara assume power as a true female anti-hero.
Overall, Billions rides a fine line. The writing is tight, the acting is superb, but is it enough? While the show has potential to double down, take charge and twist into the thrilling territory of dramas, it could also fizzle flat pretty quickly. Still, that’s something which with we all gamble when watching new television shows. Taking the journey to discover the outcome can be half the fun.
If you’ve got the hour, give Billions a watch. Suss it out, see if it’s your jam.
You can catch the Billions pilot episode on the Showtime website, on Hulu if you’re subscribed to the Showtime add-on, on YouTube or on TV as it airs January 17, 10/9c on Showtime. Once you’ve caught up on the premiere, you can watch the second episode of Billions on the Showtime website starting January 17.