Can a TV show try too hard to be taken seriously, come off instead as fantastically silly, and somehow remain adorably needy, all at the same time? That is the strange portfolio of Billions (Sky Atlantic, Tuesday, 9pm), a drama so invested in its battle to the death between a mega-rich hedge-fund manager, Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), and his snarling adversary, US attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), that it becomes less an epic clash than a strangely seething romance. "He's really in your head," marvels one of Axelrod's advisers at the top of its second series. Mm-hm. And why won't he call?
Billions is so pumped up with alpha males and hero worship, so consumed with winners and losers, so erotically fascinated with acts of domination and humiliation (especially humiliation) that it's a marvel the creators haven't found employment yet as speech writers for the Trump administration. That wouldn't be much of a stretch; Billions imagines the financial markets the way The Apprentice imagines business, as a kill-or-be-killed game with glittering rewards and epic fails, and it plays like a cabal of frat boys re-enacting Shakespearean battle scenes. Once more unto the breach, dawg.
Axelrod, or “Axe” to his friends, is an extraordinary individual. We know this because we are told so, endlessly. People fall on their swords for him, one literally died for him, and gutless cucks betray him at their peril. “I am willing to do whatever it takes to avoid my fate,” Axe tells his rebooted firm, endearingly unfamiliar with how fate works.
Seeking to win back his valuable company shrink Wendy (Maggie Siff) – and as fate unavoidably has it, Chuck’s wife – who has recently left both men, Axe is even sycophantically rebuffed: he will thrive without her, Wendy says, “in a way few others in this world can, it will be an amazing thing to see”. He still seems miffed.
Called out to a racetrack in the dead of night for another overwrought how-I-made-my-billions anecdote, his lawyer has the temerity to interject: "You don't show, you win!" But the writers don't show, they tell – with such wearisome insistence you begin to doubt Axe's facility to walk competently while chewing gum. Damian Lewis never seemed especially convinced, and as the dialogue turns bizarrely florid in this season, he screws up his eyes, puckers his lips, and nods like a bobblehead doll through the indignity of "the murky suggestion hanging over me, looming over every encounter". The inside trader doth protest too much, methinks.
When we last left them, a paranoid Axe and a roundly defeated Rhoades seemed to have reached stalemate. The only thing more dangerous than a man with unlimited resources (that’s Axe, everybody!) is a man with nothing to lose, Giamatti snarled. Now Axe is going for all-out war, but Rhoades is pushing for subtler tactics, and is rewarded with his own in-show marketing push: “Most of the people he’s crossed swords with have gone away stuck and steaming,” cautions Axe’s lawyer, making it sound like Giamatti has vanquished a battalion of pork dumplings.
It would be nice to take Billions as a leering satire on the new Masters of the Universe, in which the psychology of the one per cent is made hilariously transparent, as when Wendy shows a group of traders a bottle of Viagra because they need “to be hard as a rock” when buying and selling shares. (Now that practice really ought to be regulated.)
But when Axe's prurient COO, Wags, tells his underlings they need "a Traci Lords of an idea . . . a barely-legal, market-dominating, cock sucker of an idea", (Lords was an underage porn star) while promoting a real-life dating app in the same breath, the show doesn't seem any less tasteless or moronic than the characters it idolises. (For more egregious product placement, its first season even had Axe seek personal advice from the metal band Metallica.)
Billions has a more intriguing real-life counterpart, though, inspired by the trials of the alarmingly successful American financier Steve Cohen, who was humbled enough by an insider-trading scandal to have shuttered his hedge fund. That was a few years ago, and Cohen has since reached a deal to return to full business next year, likely under the much looser financial regulations of the Trump administration. The show might seem luridly overblown, but next to the real thing, Billions is small potatoes.