Six reasons why “Billions” is the most enjoyable show on TV
Billions, the Showtime drama that recently completed its third season, may not be the best show on TV. But it’s certainly the most entertaining – and the one that’s made me most look forward to Sunday night.
The show, which debuted in January 2016, began with a very simple premise: Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damien Lewis) is a billionaire financial whiz who runs a hedge fund called Axe Capital. Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) is the U.S. attorney out to put him away. The series is a series of cat-and-mouse machinations between the two of them.
But there’s more to Billions than that. Here are six things about the show that make it as enjoyable as it is:
Chuck is very far from a pure hero, nor is Axe an absolute villain.
The Billions hashtag emoji on Twitter may feature animations of Bobby and Chuck’s heads facing one another, but there’s a lot more to Billions beyond its initial premise.
Chuck is very far from a pure hero, nor is Axe an absolute villain. Chuck is established as coming from a wealthy WASP family, while Axe is from a working class background, and the series shows repeatedly how these men were shaped by where they came from. Chuck’s wife, Wendy (prestige TV perennial Maggie Siff) is also a psychiatrist and Axe’s in-house performance coach – and Chuck and Wendy have something very rare on prestige TV – an S&M-based relationship that’s treated respectively within the world of the show.
In a sign of the show’s maturity, not to mention it’s depth, the Chuck vs. Axe feud was barely a part of the third season at all.
A deep bench
Beyond the leads, Billions boasts the deepest cast of any current TV series, with a roster of supporting and guest actors that stretches into the dozens. No show on television is better cast.
David Costabile, an expert character actor who usually specializes in meek, awkward nerdy types such as Gale on Breaking Bad, plays completely against type here as Michael “Wags” Wagner, Axe’s amoral and hedonistic right-hand man, and my favorite TV character in years. Kelly Aucoin, who played the very different role of Pastor Tim on The Americans, plays another morally suspect Axe lieutenant, “Dollar Bill” Stearn.
…with a roster of supporting and guest actors that stretches into the dozens. No show on television is better cast.
Speaking of morally suspect, Jeffrey DeMunn (from the early seasons of The Walking Dead) steals scenes as Charles, Sr., Axe’s despicable father, while Condola Rashad, daughter of Ahmad and Phylicia, is a delight as a prosecutor who works for Chuck.
There are some great guest stars who pop up from time to time; I’m especially taken with Ira, Chuck’s lawyer buddy who’s always stepping in some sort of tragedy, and the murderer’s row of character actors who have stopped by the show, like Eric Bogosion, David Strathairn, Austin Pendleton, and, at the end of season 3, John Malkovich.
And there’s one other key cast member, too:
The Taylor Factor
Billions added someone new to the cast at the start of season 2: Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor Mason, a gender-non-conforming Axe Capital analyst who uses they/them pronouns. Both Dillon the actor and Tyler the character are gender-non-conforming, a first for a regular character on an American TV series.
…Asia Kate Dillon’s run as Taylor is far more than some well-intentioned identity politics coup – it’s one of the more compelling TV arcs in memory.
Some lesser shows would have established that milestone and left it at that, or perhaps made the character’s gender identity the only notable thing about them. Not Billions; Taylor was a major character on the series almost from the start, was given multiple significant character traits, and even, at times, got to be a villain. And by the end of season three, Taylor was clearly part of the series’ main plot going forward.
Does this world accept Taylor more readily than the real hedge fund community might? Perhaps; there are certain characters who always use the correct pronouns when I suspect they might not. But Asia Kate Dillon’s run as Taylor is far more than some well-intentioned identity politics coup – it’s one of the more compelling TV arcs in memory.
A writer showcase
Billions may be an actors’ show, but it’s a writer’s show, as well; I’ve been known to rewind whole scenes to watch them again, just so I can make sure I caught all the great banter.
The show’s staff, led by co-creator/showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien, fill the show with more than one kind of great writing – sure, there’s witty dialogue, but there’s also fine character work and some brilliantly structured episodes. Most notably is “Golden Frog Time” (aka “the Ice Juice episode”), the delightfully twisty penultimate episode of Season 2.
The show also makes use of pop culture references better than most shows of its kind, and never in a way that’s particularly corny. In one season 3 episode, Eric Bogosion’s character delivers a pair of particularly topical quotes from L.A. Confidential (“The Night Owl case made you – do you want to tear all that down?”) and Boogie Nights (“I like simple pleasures – butter in my ass, lollipops in my mouth”) – two great movies that came out within a few weeks of each in the fall of 1997.
Billions knows that it’s taking place in the age of Trump, but it’s more subtle about it than some other shows might be. In one masterstroke, it takes the character of Todd Krakow (Danny Strong), the most loathsome, obnoxious Wall Street figure in a show full of them – and in Season 3 makes him the secretary of the treasury, in the tradition of Steven Mnuchin. And while Season 3’s cowboy attorney general (Clancy Brown) isn’t quite a direct Jeff Sessions stand-in, he does articulate some Trumpian concepts related to crime, race, and the veneration of law enforcement.
But enjoying Billions by no means requires one to be a flaming liberal…
Wall Street lovers and haters
Because Billions is about the world of the finance industry, just about everyone who works in finance watches it, and loves it. But there’s plenty about the show that those who hate Wall Street and everything it stands for can easily enjoy it too. This is a hard needle to thread – HBO’s Silicon Valley manages to do the same thing,but Billions manages to somehow be pro and anti-Wall Street at the same time, to different people.
And beyond that, the show may contain some arcane Wall Street language, but by no means does enjoying it require any working knowledge of high finance.
…Billions manages to somehow be pro and anti-Wall Street at the same time, to different people.
So ironically, the show that’s beloved by just about every finance bro around doubles as television’s most trenchant critique of toxic masculinity.
In short, Billions is great, and it’s only gotten better. We’re probably looking at no more Billions until next spring at the earliest, but you can catch up on at on Showtime’s various on-demand platforms.