Review: “Billions” delivers modest TV-time return

January 15, 2016

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Wall Street has finally earned its “Billions.” After so many successful TV shows built around counterparts in the legal profession, U.S. cable network Showtime will debut a series this weekend that attempts to capture the financial zeitgeist with an over-the-top clash between a hedge-fund boss and a federal prosecutor. It delivers a modest return on investment of television-watching time.

Any banker or portfolio manager will recognize Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, the mega-wealthy investor played by Damian Lewis of “Homeland” fame. Comparisons to Steve Cohen and his former firm SAC Capital are easy, though there are efforts to make him a composite of various headline-grabbing hedgies. Lewis is pretty much the best thing going for “Billions,” with a ruthless but cool demeanor that steals nearly every scene he is in.

His nemesis is Chuck Rhoades, the U.S. Attorney in New York feverishly trying to triangulate an investigation that will nail Axe for the insider trading he is committing but which is so fiendishly hard to prove. Paul Giamatti is often at his growling, hang-dog best, though it may take a couple of episodes for anyone who saw him portray Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to get used to him in this new financial role.

The lead-acting firepower struggles, however, to overcome some of the hammy dialogue and storylines. They are further burdened by the perennial challenge of presenting high finance on screen. Writers and producers of “Billions,” who include Andrew Ross Sorkin – the CNBC anchor, New York Times columnist and founder of DealBook, which is a Breakingviews publishing partner – do their best, but the long-winded explanations of subject matter like short squeezes often come off forced.

Other eye-rolling dialogue is peppered throughout. At one Axe Capital idea-pitch meeting, for example, investment managers toss out lines referencing virgin prom queens, equines and Catherine the Great. It’s hard to know whether that’s just a violation of poetic license – if it’s cribbed from real life, it’s a small miracle that the typical hedge fund lost only 3 percent last year.

Then there is also Axelrod heavy-handedly reminding everyone in his path of his humble beginnings. Extensive monologues about pizza parlors, paper routes and summer caddying grow tiresome. So, too, do the many bawdy clichés, which might make a viewer wonder if “Billions” is trying to dramatize Wall Street or merely send it up.

There are at least some efforts to turn conventions on their head. For example, cocaine gets snorted off a naked woman not by a hedge-fund bro out of central casting but rather the young female staffer in the U.S. Attorney’s office. And while there is some cartoonish villainy, replete with actual mustache twirling, “Billions” goes out of its way to wrestle with the complexities of right and wrong, and to make sure that Axe thinks about more than his trading book and that Rhoades has a realistic dark side.

The show also manages to hit something of a stride in later episodes. One former Axe Capital employee provides prosecutors with a captivating and nuanced account of how information flows to Axelrod and how he processes it, all the while distributing it to maximum profit-making effect without leaving any obvious fingerprints. That improvement offers some degree of hope that the chemistry between Axelrod and Rhoades and their respective wives might also get better. As it stands, they are interestingly drawn characters unto themselves, but don’t necessarily make for a solid ensemble.

Otherwise, “Billions” will be overshadowed by its own alpha-male behavior. The S&M scenes, Metallica shows and gratuitous nudity, coupled with soap-opera twists, make it a harder-core “Dynasty” meets “Desperate Housewives.” It’s some mindless fun, but hardly enough to beat the market.

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