Showtime’s Billions is currently my favorite show on television; yet, I can’t exactly tell you why. It’s super intense, self-involved, amoral, aggressively unapologetic and hyper alpha-male fueled. Even the female characters are laced with abnormal testosterone levels. We’re not exactly talking about a group of crowd-pleasing, feel-good characters of the summer- but, that may just be what makes them all so fascinating and compelling. The weak-minded and feeble simply do not exist in the fictional Billions world- a world that either replicates or satirizes, depending on your perspective, the ultra-competitive, Oliver Stone “greed is good” mentality of multi-billion dollar hedge fund traders.
At the core of its existence, Billions, is about the on-going illegal business practices conducted by an investment firm, spearheaded by one man, Bobby Axelrod (Axe), played by master manipulator Damian Lewis, verses the questionable legal business of another man, Chuck Rhoades, played by the exemplary talent, Paul Giamatti. Rhoades is the District Attorney for New York’s Southern district, which positions him as the Prosecutor-in-Chief of Wall Street. Rhoades often blurs the line of the law to satisfy his judicial prudence. Sounds a bit too familiar. It’s high stakes poker at the highest of levels.
Poker, being the other familiar machismo centered genre for two of the show’s brilliant creators, Brian Koppelman and David Levien. The screenwriting duo also wrote the Matt Damon, Ed Norton cult poker film, Rounders and ESPN’s single season scripted series, Tilt. Acclaimed TV writer and creator, Andrew Ross Sorkin, is the show’s third guiding force. Sorkin knows a thing or two about volatile, or should I say, passionate characters.
Billions is certainly not the first show to feature dominant men (and women)- consider the dominatrix element within the show- which I’m pretty sure is not an unintentional subtext by the show’s creators. Power and control remain vibrant corridors for TV dramas to explore. As does trust, loyalty and desire. Shows like Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Scandal, unequivocally force us to examine the alpha-male embedded in us all. Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?
“The Yankee Clipper” represents a great many things to many different people. To me, Joe D is an example of the kind of all-American alpha-male that now struggles to find a place in the modern world and TV’s landscape. The old alpha-male was still the BMOC and very much in-charge, yet sensitive to the plight of others and thoughtfully reflective in his own behavior. He recognizes the consequences of his actions and empathizes with those he affects. Axe and Rhoades are no Joe DiMaggio- nor are they Al Bundy, nor even Tony Soprano, with all his flaws. These previous TV alpha males were keenly aware of their faults and limitations.
Ultimately, the characters (male and female) in Billions never succumb to their short-comings. They just won’t allow it or allow themselves to be adversely affected for more than a brief moment. Weakness and doubt are liabilities. These alpha-males are persistent, thirsty killers.
A show that might be dubbed a predecessor to Billions from a few years ago was the all too short-lived Starz drama, Boss, starring Kelsey Grammar, who played a fiercely emboldened Chicago Mayor and alpha-male to perfection. Like Bruce Springsteen (who happened to be prominently cited in this past week’s Billions episode), Starz’s Boss and the bosses in Billions were Born To Run, not walk. However, unlike The Boss, Joe D and yes, four Touchdowns in a single game Al Bundy, these alpha-males are built without humility and sensitivity beyond their ferocious pursuit of greatness. Springsteen’s purposefully stated, he didn’t care about being rich or famous, he just wanted to be great- but not for “greatness” sake alone. Springsteen wanted to be great enough to make a difference in people’s lives.
In a poignant scene from this season of Billions, one character wonders about who he is going to fuck or who he wants to fuck. It’s a curious moment of introspection and the potential limits of one’s abilities. The character comes to realize that the leading “Billions” characters need not ever have to choose who to fuck, because they believe they can fuck them all.
The on-going battle between the Billions’ leading men, Rhoades and Axe, is never far removed from any one scene. It’s always bubbling like hot lava on the edge of a dormant volcano waiting to erupt with magnificent grandeur and mass destruction. Both men remain deeply committed to morals which justify their self-appreciating right from wrong. Who is right and who is wrong matters greatly, in the sense, pride and power do to one’s id. The conflict that exists within each, as well, as amongst the rest of the cast always comes back to one central thing- how does it affect me and my well being?
In the age of self-serving “Trumpism" and the rise of narcissism, Billions appears to be the perfect conduit for such an expanding audience. The show’s mass appeal actually came up at a Passover Seder I recently attended. A middle-aged man, who I had never met previously, shared how peculiar it was the show seemed to captivate all age ranges and political alignments. Perhaps the common ground with viewers lies more in the basic principles of humanity and serves as a possible explanation for Trump’s remarkable election win. Are we all merely driven by our inner savagery and wonton desires?
No matter our career or path, at some point in our lives, we all face the narrow line of destiny which we must decide to traverse or penetrate. What moves us ahead or sets us back is the personal inner compass that resides in each of us. Is it respect for the law, our religious convictions, or simply, what’s in our heart that dictates how far we will go?
For now, Billions answers this question, efficiently and directly- We will go as far as we can, as long as it continues to benefit us.
Now, replace “We” with “I” and “us” with “me” and you have the Billions doctrine- or the current U.S. one. It all depends on your perspective.
One other thing that curiously strikes me about the show- despite all the characters’ wealth of accomplishments and riches, no one appears to be particularly happy. For the most part, it’s one angry, unsatisfied bunch. And I love it.