Billions’ turns financial drama into a cheesy soap opera

Giamatti and Siff conspire over groceries.

Two stars

Billions Sundays, 10 p.m., Showtime.

Showtime’s Billions, a drama ostensibly about the high-powered battle between billionaire hedge-fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and New York-based U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), announces its inherent sleaziness in its first episode’s opening scene, which isn’t about financial impropriety or government corruption, but about the kinky sexual exploits (bound, gagged, urinated on) of one of its main characters. For all its superficial connections to current events, Billions is at heart a self-consciously titillating soap opera, another example of a Showtime series making all the wrong efforts to appear serious and daring.

Gratuitous sex scenes aside (although there are plenty), Billions relies on overwrought contrivances to build up the rivalry between its two main characters, who are equally despicable. That starts with Rhoades’ wife Wendy (Maggie Siff), who also happens to be the in-house psychologist at Axe’s company. While her husband builds a case against her boss, Wendy ends up caught in the middle, and Siff gives the most interesting performance in a show that is mostly about the bluster of incredibly rich, incredibly self-centered men.

That bluster quickly grows tiresome, since neither Rhoades nor Axe is especially compelling. The BDSM component of the Rhoades’ marriage is actually handled with a degree of sensitivity, and Axe too is married to a strong, vibrant woman (Malin Akerman) with her own goals and desires. But the wives’ storylines, along with those of other supporting characters, are subordinate to the high-stakes chess game between Rhoades and Axe, which never achieves the level of importance to which it aspires.

Co-created by screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen) and financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin (Too Big to Fail), Billions is full of financial and legal jargon that’s meant to make it sound authentic, but mostly makes it sound tedious and convoluted. Not that the rest of the dialogue is any better; when it’s not bogged down in industry minutiae, it’s cheesy and overheated (“My cholesterol’s high enough—don’t butter my ass,” Axe tells one of his underlings). Any meaningful resonance with issues of financial inequality and government collusion loses out to bitchy backstabbing and awkward celebrity cameos.

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