Billions is engineered to be Showtime’s next “prestige” drama. But it’s hard to leave the pilot episode (premiering Sunday) without wishing the show was better.

Image provided by imdb/Showtime

Which isn’t to suggest that Billions is bad. Far from it. It’s framed as an epic showdown between Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), the powerful U.S. Attorney for New York, and hedge fund billionaire Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis). The pilot has Chuck receive info from an ambitious SEC operative suggesting that Bobby’s fund might have engaged in insider trading. The politically ambitious Chuck is reluctant to risk his perfect conviction record going after the popular Bobby, almost a local folk hero. The situation is further complicated by a longstanding professional tie between Bobby and Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff). Bobby’s beautiful wife Lara (Malin Akerman) is prepared to throw down with anyone who threatens her family.

The script sees Chuck trying to maneuver Bobby into a PR blunder that makes him vulnerable. It’s interesting enough and certainly modern. But the pilot of Billions piles on too many elements that don’t feel all that fresh. The drama is built around the spurious “Main St. vs. Wall St.” construct that felt played out a couple election cycles ago. The script feints at possibly having something interesting to say on that topic, but doesn’t quite get there. It at least refrains from suggesting any kind of class war between Chuck and Bobby, both of whom are shown to be privileged and powerful.

Billions can’t help but load familiar tropes onto the characters. Of course the powerful Chuck has a domination fetish. The attitude of justice only being worth pursuing if the case is winnable isn’t new ground. Bobby gets saddled with even more clichés. He’s a self-made man. He hangs out at his favorite pizza joint in the “old neighborhood” and helps the owner save his business. He sends the kids of his deceased partners to college, but won’t use that for publicity.

Image provided by imdb/Showtime

And while addressing 9/11 may be unavoidable for a drama set in the New York financial world, Billions does so in less than elegant ways, leaving just enough of an impression of exploitation to make a viewer uneasy. The pilot is too fond of exposition-heavy speeches, awkward scene transitions and tortured constructions to be smooth. The sequence leading to both Bobby’s big speech to his partners’ families (telling the people gathered things they already know) and Lara’s one big scene of the pilot is so clunky that the impact of the scenes is entirely undercut.

Billions shows some good instincts, though. Chuck’s relationship with his father looked like it was heading somewhere predictable, but the episode went in a very different direction. The show has some interesting ideas brewing about the intersection of the media, business and legal worlds and how they play off one another. Placing Wendy in the middle of Chuck and Bobby’s battle has a lot of potential. There are some potentially juicy secrets teased in a few scenes.

The biggest reason to give Billions a shot is its amazing cast. Few shows in recent memory have been so blessed. Giamatti and Lewis are both excellent. They nail their characters immediately, elevating the uneven script to communicate quite clearly where each man stands. Giamatti probably had the better material in the pilot and had some really strong scenes. A scene where Chuck communicated controlled fury in a plea negotiation was particularly mesmerizing. The writing worked against Lewis a lot of the time, but he mostly rose above it. The pilot made viewers wait until almost the end for the first Chuck/Bobby scene and it did not disappoint. Watching Giamatti and Lewis work off of one another was a thrill and is the best justification for the existence of Billions.

Image provided by imdb/Showtime

Siff had some really good scenes with both actors, but Akerman didn’t really get a lot to do at the outset. The cast is stacked with amazing character actors in supporting and recurring roles. The likes of Toby Leonard Moore (Daredevil), David Costabile (Damages), Terry Kinney (Oz) and Nathan Darrow (House of Cards) all turned up in the pilot. Pretty much every role was well cast. It’s a huge asset for the drama.

The show was shot beautifully. New York was used to strong effect and scenes had a crisp, propulsive feel. The action was well-staged, especially the Chuck/Bobby confrontation. It felt contemporary in the best sense.

Overall the pilot was solid, but not breathtaking. Billions feels like it merits at least a couple more episodes to see where it’s going. If the writing can better support the excellent cast and the show hews more toward some of the better instincts seen around the edges of the first episode, it could develop into a truly compelling drama.

Originally published at on January 12, 2016.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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