After finding itself on a hot streak not long ago with Homeland going on an Emmy-winning run, Showtime found its original content could compete with the likes of HBO, FX, and Netflix when it came to critical acclaim and awards recognition. But the story of the world’s worst spy is seemingly well past its trophy-winning prime, settling in to a comfortable place, knowing the end is coming well in advance of its arrival. That’s in sharp contrast to series like Penny Dreadful and Masters of Sex, both of which ended abruptly in seasons 3 and 4, respectively, or recent one-and-done series, like Happyish.
Sure, the premium channel still has hits like Shameless, Ray Donovan, and The Affair to rely on, though they none scream marquee title. Twin Peaks and I’m Dying Up Here both launch later this year, but the former is a “closed-ended” event and the latter will premiere months after HBO’s own stand-up-centric series Crashing. That’s not to say either series won’t potentially be huge hits, but until that’s proven true or not, Showtime’s current marquee series is Billions.
That designation makes sense, considering the talent involved. Starring Showtime’s golden boy Damian Lewis as hedge fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod and Paul Giamatti as his perpetually grumpy governmental adversary Charles “Chuck” Rhodes (Lewis definitely won the nickname battle when the show was handing them out), Billions also gives plum roles to Maggie Siff and Malin Akerman. The cast offers a not-so-subtle account of the show’s climb toward joining the ranks of prestige television, and certainly for leading the charge in terms of Showtime’s original content. What’s most interesting, though, is that season 2 offers a few tonal tweaks and shifts in perspective that suggest Billions could very well earn its place at the top of the Showtime pile.
Though nowhere near as irreverent or visually stunning, Billions has a lot in common with The Young Pope in terms of perception versus reality. Looking at the marketing for the series, you see a stern Giamatti staring down a smirking, self-satisfied Lewis, and the advertisements tease a high-stakes grudge match between two powerful men – intimating the series is more or less dedicated to the ups and downs of a humorless pissing contest between a pair of privileged alpha males. That description fits Billions better than one of Axe’s signature dress-code-be-damned rock band T-shirts save one thing: the show’s not without a sense of humor about itself or its characters.
Creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien injected plenty of humor into the series with season 1. The series premiere alone had numerous winking nods at its characters’ inflated machismo to go along with all the micturating – figurative and otherwise – witnessed throughout the hour. That sense of humor more or less carried through the entire first season, though it seemed to wane as the season approached the finale and insinuated a powerful confrontation between Axe and Chuck. Showtime would clearly like to see Billions run more than one season, so that confrontation basically ended in a stalemate, one that afforded Koppelman and Levien a chance to flip the script to a certain degree, putting Axe on the offensive and seeing how Chuck responds to running defense.
The season 2 premiere, ‘Risk Management’, is invested in exploring that new dynamic and doing so with an even lighter touch than the series premiere. Throughout the hour, there’s a sense that Billions is more interested in having fun with its premise than clawing its way toward prestige status. The dialogue is crisper and more dedicated to putting a pin in the inflated egos of guys who wear fleece vests to work and talk to women largely through innuendo. It also places a greater emphasis on the dynamics of power and how fluid they can be: one minute you’re dominating your opponent and then next you’re flat on your back.
A reversal in the Axe vs. Rhodes conflict shows another side of Giamatti’s character, as he’s been knocked off balance by an investigation into his office’s conduct and the near dissolution of his marriage. Chuck and Wendy are practicing something called “separated nesting” or “bird’s nest” parenting, wherein the children of a separated couple live in one house and the parents come and go on an agreed upon schedule. That in and of itself is a bit of a joke as neither kid is even seen during the first hour, underlining the narrative convenience of the modern parenting arrangement as it affords Billions an easy way to get Giamatti and Siff in a room together.
Clever narrative contortions aside, the Billions season 2 premiere makes a strong case for why its main characters don’t need to be in a room together to make the series run. Some of the strongest moments in the premiere have Axe laying out his plan to finish his opponent on the “battlefield” by funding a series of lawsuits against him – a move that’s not at all reminiscent of certain goings-on behind the scenes of the Bollea v. Gawker lawsuit. The show gets similar traction from an encounter between Chuck and his key staff, telling them to cooperate fully with the investigation into his office, knowing full well the command is a tacit reminder of their oath of fealty.
It’s Siff who benefits the most, as the show continues to demonstrate the power Wendy has over Axe and Chuck. An early scene has her being courted by Danny Strong as Todd Krakow, yet another hedge fund guy in need of some in-house psychological council for his money wranglers and their occasional performance issues. Wendy is Billions’ most powerful character. Axe claims she’s his port in the storm, and Chuck is her possibly soon-to-be former husband who also liked being her submissive when the mood struck. Season 2 wants to capitalize on her free agency and the unique leverage that comes along with her newfound independence, especially as it pertains to a group of men who speak in aphorisms and refer to their business dealings with words like “détente” and “armistice” and “battlefield.”
Wendy’s ability to speak the language without assimilating to the profit-first culture and becoming one of the “greed is good” goon squad makes her the closest thing the show has to an audience proxy. How long she can maintain her arm’s length distance from the drama is as interesting a plotline as anything else the show the show sets up in the premiere, making for a multitude of storylines waiting to capitalize on the improvements that come with season 2’s noticeably lighter touch.
Billions continues next Sunday with ‘Dead Cat Bounce’ @10pm on Showtime.
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