Billions Review: Showtime's Financial Drama Comes Up a Few Dollars Short

grade_B-Something tells me Bobby Axelrod, the hedge-fund king played by Homeland‘s Damian Lewis in Showtime’s new drama Billions, wouldn’t have been a fan of Bob Barker’s old Price Is Right signoff (you know, the one about having your pet spayed or neutered).

Bobby, you see, is so perturbed by the sight of his recently castrated canine — complete with pitiful recovery cone and a general air of dejection — that he decides to double down on his own masculinity and buy (in cash) the $63 million beach mansion his advisers have warned him will put him on the radar of the U.S. Attorney’s office.

If that sounds a teensy bit preposterous, consider this: Said property sits just down the shore from one owned by the mega-rich father of the aforementioned U.S. Attorney, Chuck Rhoades (Sideways‘ Paul Giamatti). And Rhoades’ decision about whether or not to open an investigation into Axe’s possibly shady methodology boils down to whether or not the dude puts down an offer on the ostentatious pad. “If he’s innocent, he passes, because he’s a disciplined player and he knows that’s the disciplined move,” Rhoades surmises. “But a guilty man? He buys that house to show me he’s got nothin’ to hide.”

That’s just one of several groan-inducing plot contrivances you’ll have to choke down if you want to enjoy some of the sweeter aspects of Billions‘ early episodes, the best of which is a deeply charismatic performance from Lewis. He somehow manages to balance Axe’s swagger and sweetness, his populist leanings and his wretched excess, and make him the hero of a play in which no one really inhabits the moral high ground. Axe and his wife Lara (Trophy Wife‘s Malin Akerman, equally good and clearly having fun here) may not have earned all their money the ethical way, but their ferocious loyalty to their own — and deeply held grudges against those who’ve wronged them — are delectably enjoyable, and could propel Billions for seasons to come.

Giamatti, though, succumbs to some of his worst scenery-chewing instincts in a role that has him scarfing down Chinese takeout, quoting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and trying to sound profound dropping lines like, “There’s a saying in baseball: Towns fire managers, owners just give them the bad news.” For a man with an undefeated record in the courtroom and almost unlimited power, his Rhoades often comes off as too reactive, too desperate, too in need of a verbal smackdown from his wife Wendy (Sons of Anarchy‘s Maggie Siff), who works as the in-house therapist for Axe’s firm and then goes home to put cigarettes out on her husband’s bare chest. Wendy’s arc is the one that requires the biggest suspension of disbelief, but Siff brings to it a droll humor that results in some of the show’s funniest moments.

Still, Billions‘ reliance on clichéd details means there are times you’ll be laughing at it, not with it — like a scene where an investor and his client get side-by-side handjobs from busty Asian masseuses, or a moment where Axe’s henchman gets an important text just as he’s about to engage in sexytimes with a lingerie-clad dwarf, or that straight-boy fantasy where lesbians snort cocaine off each other’s breasts.

If you can get past the lack of originality — and lines like “We have to be more pure than the Virgin Mary before her first period” — Billions does offer a nasty but fun escape into a world that brings to life the title of the Notorious B.I.G.’s old hit, “Mo Money, Mo Problems.”

The TVLine Bottom Line: Billions isn’t bad, but it doesn’t result in the creative windfall its pedigree might suggest.