CAPSULE REVIEW: Billions is based on the real-life battle between US Attorney Preet Bharara (Southern New York District) and fund manager Andrew Cohen. Bharara thought Cohen’s investment fund was a little too successful to be perfectly legitimate, and began looking deeper into the organisation. Multiple counts of insider trading and other corrupt dealings were discovered, and in 2015 Cohen’s SAC Investments coughed up $1.8 billion in fines. It was a sour victory for Bharara, as Cohen escaped prosecution despite Bharara’s belief that Cohen was neck deep into the deals for which numerous staff carried the can. But Billions is about much more than recreating Bharara and Cohen’s epic fight – it’s about ambition with Shakespearian aspirations. This is an epic production that almost works but for a few serious flaws that includes some seriously underwritten supporting parts and excessively florid dialogue. The leads are almost faultless (but then they have plenty to work with). The ever-reliable Paul Giamatti plays US Attorney Chuck Rhodes (Bharara) and Damien Lewis tackles Robbie Axelrod (Cohen), both to grand Machiavellian effect. Also a big nod to Maggie Siff as Chuck’s wife Wendy Rhoades, who gives it everything she’s got, and triumphs. With lesser actors at work this production would not have reached the heights it has. Compelling at times, tepid at others, it could have been a masterpiece. Shame it’s not.
Paul Giamatti! What an actor! But more of that later… Billions is a TV series based on the life and times of Preet Bharara, who was until recently the US Attorney of the Southern District of New York. Bharara was removed from his post in 2017 as new US President Trump sought to cleanse all Obama-era appointees from the room.
This was no reflection on his work: as a Federal Attorney he had a phenomenally successful run prosecuting banks and hedge funds involved in corrupt activities and corporate crime.
He came unstuck only once when he tackled Steve Cohen (72nd richest man in the world) of SAC Capital. Bharara and Cohen fought a number of intense courtroom battles that ended with SAC paying fines of $1.8 billion for insider trading. Cohen was never convicted, but some of his traders were.
Billions is set in the morally obtuse world of capital management where Giamatti’s New York District Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Bharara) is on the trail of Damien Lewis’s Robbie ‘Axe’ Axelrod (Cohen), whose multi-billion dollar hedge fund Axe Capital (SAC) is looking a little too successful to be completely above board. Rhoades is interested in taking a closer look, but is well aware of Axelrod’s reputation for cunning and guile. Any moves are going to be carefully considered and well camouflaged.
So far it’s shaping up to be pretty standard Good Guy VS Corrupt Bad Guy sort of stuff, or is it? Cue the ancient Chinese game of Go, which is referenced enough by the writers to suggest that that their aspirations lie well beyond the show’s initial premise. According to Wikipedia, Go is complex adversarial game with more possibilities than the total number of atoms in the visible universe. That’s a big narrative ask, but I get their point.
With season two almost done, Billions is turning out to be far more than the sum of its initial parts. This show is a complex account of ambition and as we watch Chuck and Axe play out their cards so the lines between good and bad, right and wrong become increasingly blurred, there is never been any doubt about Axelrod’s lack of moral centre. As the episodes have wound on, Rhoades’ virtuous pretentions have become less solid, and quietly the good guy has morphed into something altogether more ambivalent and self-serving. It’s all very Machiavellian, and I wonder if the latter’s famous book about power and how to maintain it – The Prince – is an inspiration.
Charles Rhoades Sr (Jeffrey DeMunn, who nails the odious and scheming father with all the craft of the well seasoned actor he is) has devoted himself to grooming junior for higher office, and after the law career the goal is the governorship of New York State, then if all goes well, the US Presidency. But Chuck Jr is not just a puppet for his father’s ambition, he fully has his father’s number and is in all the way. His ambition is palpable. But he is not just ambitious, he is whip-smart with it. Chuck Rhoades Jr has a Go players perspective, and while others are playing the short game, he is playing the long one. His Achilles heels include a penchant for sadomasochism (a prominent story line in Season One that has largely been abandoned in Season Two) and his wife’s involvement with Axelrod. If he can keep all that neatly contained, he might be able to pull the big one off.
Wendy Rhoades (the amazing Maggie Siff) is no dutiful wife; in fact she presents an awkward problem for Chuck. She is a psychiatrist and one of Robbie Axelrod’s more potent employees. It is her savvy for understanding people that is partly responsible for Axe Capital’s ongoing success. Chuck is not only unhappy with the arrangement, but the bubbling jealously he feels might yet be his undoing. As for Wendy, despite all her savvy, Chuck otherwise has her neatly packaged and knows how to operate her for his own ends, just as he knows how to operate most everyone. With the exception of Robbie Axelrod.
When it comes to narratives about ambition, my touchstone is Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece, Citizen Kane. The central figure of the film is Charles Foster Kane, who is not unlike Chuck Rhoades. Naturally ambitious and super smart with it, he had benefited from a dose of good fortune. In this case a goldmine and a suitable guardian/mentor. Much the same as Chuck, whose wealthy father provides the resources and ongoing encouragement. Axelrod on the other hand, is the completely self-made man, the essential American Robber Baron, one who not only achieved the American dream, but has conquered it. No helpful father for him, and he resents Chuck for this step up.
Both men are in fact different sides of the same coin, brothers in arms, which perhaps accounts for their obsession with each other. Chuck excuses his less salubrious qualities as necessary methods he needs to employ to fulfil his ambitions, which include doing good things for the majority of the people. Axelrod on the other hand, couldn’t care less. His pretence is fully manipulative and superficial. He is There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), an Ayn Randian fantasy set free to do as ambition does.
His own wife, Lara Axelrod (Malin Åkerman) has grown up alongside him and is under the illusion that she is an equal partner in all this, and while her counsel is sometimes sought, Robbie seeks to play her as Rhoades plays Wendy. Or perhaps placate is the better word here, because Axelrod lacks Chuck’s subtlety, and while she is under no illusion as to her status in this fiefdom, that doesn’t stop her trying to claim respect and influence. Her pleas for recognition resonate with authenticity and her creeping narcissism is a nice example of the old adage about how wealth and privilege corrupt completely.
No show succeeds without the requisite quality cast, and among my favourites here are the insanely incorrigible Wags (David Costabile – a rising new character actor who is sadly underwritten at times) as Axelrod’s primary fix-it man and go-getter. Rhoades’ guy suffers the same underwritten fate. Bryan Connerty (Toby More) is perhaps the most poorly drawn of the main cast. Almost at the end of Season Two, the stoic Connerty has not been properly explored nor tested, though not for lack of opportunity. Lara Axelrod comes perilously close to the same fate at times, which is sad because she has often been excellent grist for the mill.
Here we have the show’s greatest weakness: the plotting is fine but the writing is often thin. Other weaknesses include a lack of directorial flair, half-explored storylines and the florid soliloquies, which are thrown about like so much cheap confetti. The writers obviously had a grand time composing them, but they seem so out of step with the overall tone. I mean, who the hell speaks like that? Actors in a Shakespeare play, that’s who, but this ain’t Shakespeare, though the bard is obviously a touchstone. Shades of The Merchant Of Venice, Richard The Third and Macbeth abound, not to forget (as well as Citizen Kane and There Will Be Blood) Kurasawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960) and Alexander Mackendrick’s The Sweet Smell Of Success (1957).
With leads like Siff, Giamatti and Lewis, this series should rock but it doesn’t. Not as much as it should. Not quite. Still, it has its moments. The poker game where television’s first non-binary gender character (Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor Mason) explores the wrath of the world is on the money, as are the machinations that deal Chuck out of his Season Two conundrums. Axelrod sitting in his newly acquired $80 million dollar mansion watching Charles Foster Kane on his home cinema is a blast. “I’ve always thought I should see this film,” he tells his projectionist, though the irony completely escapes him. As for Chuck, stealing information on Axelrod from his wife’s computer is a low point, though not as low as the games he resorts to as he attempts to put right the damage the fallout causes his marriage. Still, you can’t but help liking him. Could have been a masterpiece. Shame it’s not.
Paul Giamatti – short, rotund and bearded – might lack conventional ‘good looks’ but he is a deftly charismatic performer and knows how to deliver a line. Among the best Giamatti performances are his turn as a wine expert in the comedy/drama Sideways, a lyrical and ferociously funny road trip through California’s Napa Valley that was a huge success for everyone concerned, especially Giamatti, whose verve make the whole thing as delightfully ironic as it is.
Lady In The Water is a much more controversial choice. Made by the oft-derided M. Night Shyamalan, this supernatural drama was slated by all and sundry (I suspect because at the time it was fashionable to slag the maker of the mega-hit The Sixth Sense) but I loved it. I especially loved Giamatti’s sympathetic lead, a ‘broken man’ who finds redemption in helping a lost water nymph find her way home. This is a fairy tale for adults, and Giamatti’s performance is beautiful and heroic.
Barney’s Version is a comedy/drama adapted from a famous Canadian comic novel by Mordecai Richler that examines the life and condition of larger-than-life television producer Barney Panofski, who carries within him the answer to the mysterious death of his best friend Boogie. He knows he wasn’t responsible, (though a few suspect that he was), but hasn’t put all the pieces together yet. All is revealed in the closing scenes of this beautiful and poignant film that looks into the human condition, and finds joyous absurdity amidst the wreckage.
American Splendour (2003) stars Giamatti as comic-book writer Harvey Pekar in the solid biopic that brought him to wider attention. He takes on Dr Eugene Landy in the 2015 Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, and gets it about exactly as you imagine it should be with his lead performance in Cold Souls, a satire about people who get their souls removed in order to achieve emotional detachment. In 2008 he tackled pioneering American President John Adams and won an Emmy for Best Actor.
* The Internet and ‘TV on Demand’ has revolutionised the way we watch TV shows. No longer beholden to television networks and their programming whims and scheduling, we can watch back-to-back episodes of new and old shows to our heart’s content without those annoying advertisements interrupting the narrative flow. TV viewing has suddenly become more accessible, democratic and a hell of a lot more fun. ANDREW JOHNSTONE scours the available channels and finds the best of the best, so you don’t have to.