Second Screen: Is Billions a New High for Cable Television?

Jim Hemphill on the abundance of riches to be found in the Showtime series, which brings the best of cinema to the small screen.

It’s now become a cliché to say that we’re in a golden (or, as critic David Bianculli puts it, platinum) age of television, but it’s also become almost undeniably true. In fact, TV keeps getting better and better at such an accelerated rate that the last couple years have seen the rise of several series that are so good – so audacious, so multifaceted, and so entertaining – that they make even the best shows of just five or 10 years ago look almost slight by comparison. Take Showtime’s Billions, which is now six episodes into its second season. The creation of screenwriting partners Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders, The Girlfriend Experience, Ocean’s 13) and journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, it’s a whip-smart, gorgeously directed (by James Foley, Neil LaBute and Karyn Kusama, among others) and structurally ingenious drama that transforms the minutiae of the financial and legal fields into the raw materials of a high-intensity thriller. It’s good not only in the usual ways cable prestige shows are, but at things they often get wrong – and it boasts a pair of the best performances in any medium, anywhere, at any time.

Billions follows what’s essentially a pissing match with increasingly high stakes between two powerful men: U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), a crusader against financial crimes, and hedge fund titan Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), who begins the series as a beloved man of the people thanks to his humble working-class beginnings. Rhoades thinks Axelrod is crooked and sets out to prove it, and over the course of the series the power dynamic between the two men remains in a permanent state of flux, as their jobs are affected not only by the markets and political expediency but by both men’s personal obsessions and the shifting sands of public opinion. One of the series’ cleverest conceits, for example – that Rhoades, while a public servant, comes from a far tonier background than Axelrod – yields a rich exploration of his complicated motivations and drives the plot in unexpected directions, as does Axelrod seeing his image take a 180-degree turn when word gets out about his profiteering on 9/11.

I’ve never seen a film or television show so good at exploring the intersection between politics, money, and personality without oversimplifying or confusing the audience – it’s a testament to Koppelman and Levien’s mastery of their craft (and their taste in writers for the episodes they didn’t pen) that Billions is both the most complex show on TV and one of the clearest and most straightforwardly entertaining. It generates a lot of resonance and even a little unease via its echoes of recent American history – talk of Rhoades’ blind trust, the working-class community’s baffling embrace of billionaire Axelrod as a hero, and the slippery line between the public good and financial self-interest with which many of the characters struggle (or don’t) – but it doesn’t engage in a simple one-to-one allegory. Koppelman, Levien and Sorkin are smarter than that, and more ambitious; they don’t want to make a show that’s only about America in our time, they want to make a show that’s about America of all time – an epic that can stand alongside timeless meditations on power and corruption like The Godfather and Citizen Kane and Shakespeare’s historical plays.

And the damned thing is, if they can sustain what they’ve started, they’re pretty well on their way. Fifteen hours in, Billions is every bit the equal of earlier novelistic series like The Sopranos and The Wire in its impeccably crafted synthesis of drama and social comment on a broad canvas, but it has a propulsive energy all its own. Partly thanks to the high-pressure milieu and partly due to Koppelman and Levien’s own metabolism as storytellers, the action on Billions moves fast – not TV fast, but feature film fast. Most television series, even good ones, have a lot of fat that could stand to be trimmed; I love Westworld, for example, but you could sleep through a quarter of each episode and if it was the right quarter you would still be able to follow what was going on when you woke up. The knowledge that they’ve got eight, 10, or even 22 hours a season over which to spread their narratives gives a lot of TV writers the excuse – or perhaps it’s the necessity – to pad their stories out with a lot of repetition and inessential material. This can have major benefits – some of the great pleasures of The Sopranos came in the form of its digressions – but it also means that in general terms, there often isn’t much more actual substance in a 10- or 22-episode season of TV than in a really good two-hour movie.

Such is not the case with Billions, which is paced not just like a movie, but like a really fast one – like GoodFellas, or His Girl Friday. Like the investors on their show who fearlessly take multimillion-dollar gambles on instinct, Koppelman and Levien have the confidence in their own gifts to never leave anything on the table in any episode – each hour of Billions feels as though it contains every idea the writers can possibly generate. They write every episode like it’s their last, and sustain this pace without letting up. Yet the show never feels strained the way that some series do when they’re working through all the various permutations by which the characters can come into conflict; somehow, the creators of Billions have set up a world so rich that it seems capable of sustaining 50 hours or more of great television without risk of repetition.

Of course, it helps that Billions has two powerhouse lead actors in the form of Giamatti and Lewis, both of whom are the best they’ve ever been here. As the show progresses, their battle of wills takes on a larger-than-life literary quality (one could almost think of it as Moby Dick, with Damian Lewis playing the whale), but the actors never lose sight of the small details even when they’re going broad – and when they go small, in the intimate moments that explore the neuroses of these men who spend their days changing history with phone calls, the actors achieve a delicate balance between ambition and insecurity that’s consistently revelatory. Psychology as a subject is baked into the narrative of the show, as one of the other major characters is Rhoades’ wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff, fantastic), a performance coach who works for Axelrod, keeping him and his underlings razor-sharp for a salary far beyond that of her husband. The triangle between these three characters enables Billions to elaborate upon the series’ already sophisticated study of power, class and perception by bringing gender into the mix, a mission the show’s second season has doubled down on with new characters such as Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon), a young, brilliant and gender-nonbinary analyst who challenges the assumptions and power structure of the sexist patriarchal culture in which Axelrod has thrived.

The series’ tireless inquiry into these values is what keeps it from being a gross celebration of the kinds of testosterone-driven assholes who think Gordon Gekko and Tony Montana are role models rather than cautionary tales. Koppelman, Levien and Sorkin take nothing for granted and accept no previously agreed upon conventional wisdom without questioning it; regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum and what you think about free markets, the show is likely to excite you at some points and piss you off at others – which is great. It’s appropriate that it’s at the center of a new golden age of TV, because it recalls not just one but two golden ages in cinema. The verbal intelligence and elegance of the show’s dialogue writing – delivered at extraordinarily high speeds – invites and earns comparison with the best films of Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. Yet the moral ambiguity and probing examination of American institutions and guiding principles evokes another golden age, the age of 1970s Hollywood that gave us The Conversation, The Parallax View, Night Moves and Shampoo. That kind of cinema is, aside from a few occasional exceptions, long gone from movie screens, but Koppelman, Levien and Sorkin are keeping the tradition alive all by themselves, an hour and a week at a time.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently available on DVD, Amazon Prime, and iTunes. He also hosts a podcast series on the American Cinematographer website and serves as a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.