Television has never been so bad . . . and that’s a good thing
‘Billions’ and Damian Lewis’s terrible accent lead way in new era of awfully addictive ‘cack cocaine’
Damian Lewis and his Terrible American Accent in 'Billions'. Photograph: Showtime
Television has never been so bad and this is obviously a very good thing. You will recall when television was good – and how bad that made us all feel. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, all those Nordic thrillers that have in the collective memory coagulated into one dour, room-temperature blur of subtitles and low-hanging skies. How puffed-up and flavourless they all were – popular culture’s answer to a kale smoothie followed by kale smoothie for dessert (with extra kale on top).
Those days are over. After a decade plus of “Prestige Television”, the medium has reverted to its crass, obvious and pandering worst. Which is also its best. A case in point is Billions, recently returned for a third season on Sky Atlantic (the channel where you’re always vaguely disappointed Game of Thrones isn’t about to come on).
Billions, as its biggest fans will tell you, is utterly, gloriously terrible: hackneyed and cartoonish with a plot that swerves like a eight-year-old driving an SUV while shooting for a high-score on Pokémon Go. It stars Damian Lewis, the actor with the worst American accent on television, as . . . an American.
Not just any American – but a titan of New York finance. Bobby Axelrod may look like Nicholas Brody from Homeland (Lewis’s break-out role) if his red hair was dialled up to full Evil Ginger – but he is, in fact, a Wall Street master of the universe, presiding over a hedge fund worth . . . billions (probably more, but you try pitching a TV drama called Gadzillions).
Bobby has a problem – and not just that he’s trying to negotiate New York high finance saddled with Lewis’s idea of an American accent (imagine Jeremy Clarkson half-heartedly impersonating a cowboy. And then imagine the really rubbish version of that).
He has a nemesis – crusading public prosecutor/human gopher “Chuck” Rhoades jnr. Chuck is played by Paul Giamatti and is essentially a Voltron-like assembly of all the slime-balls, sleaze-bags and sexual inadequates the character actor has ever portrayed. Let’s called him the Sum of All Giamattis.
As the series resumes, Axelrod has been exiled from his own company, Axe Capital, leaving the business in the care of shaven-headed analyst Taylor (think Eleven from Stranger Things, all grown up and with the ability to manipulate currencies rather than to give Winona Ryder the heebie-jeebies).
Charmless Chuck is, for his part, taking his scheming against Bobby to next level nefarious, having inveigled a sympathetic judge into hearing the case against his mortal foe. All of this unfolds in the broadest possible terms, with characters saying things like “those funds . . . will get hot as Farrah Fawcett in ’76”.
There is also a cameo from Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and an investor on Shark Tank, the American version of Dragon’s Den. Imagine how much better last season’s Game of Thrones would have been if, instead of Ed Sheeran, its big celebrity walk-on had been the owner of the Dallas Mavericks and host of Shark Tank.
The point of a show such as Billions is that it’s equal parts terrible and addictive (if it was a drug it would be called “cack cocaine”). In fact, the former flows directly from the latter. Nobody on screen is remotely plausible – it says something about the dizzying heights of nonsense achieved that the most convincing thing about Axelrod is his Lewis-being-American accent.
That’s despite the fact that Andrew Ross Sorkin, author of the best non-fiction book about the 2008 financial crisis to have a dinosaur on its cover, is a co-creator. Maybe he understood that real-life financial whizzes are far too boring to put on screen and so gave us something winningly outrageous instead.
The dawn of the new Bad TV era can be dated to House of Cards (Netflix) in 2013
Bad television, it is important to understand, isn’t the same as cruddy, unwatchable TV. Billions illustrates the distinction between the two. It’s preposterous and shouty – but moves quickly, is crammed with twists (each more implausible than the one before) and is as addictive as a bottomless bowl of party snacks hosed down in monosodium glutamate.
A new dawn
Billions is, not by coincidence, also critically acclaimed and a ratings champion. In that regard it embodies a new dawn for Bad TV – banishing the unfortunate memory of all those deathly dreary shows we spent 1999-2009 (roughly speaking) pretending to like. Nor is it an outlier. Consider Suits (Netflix), in which Meghan Markle just about acts her way out of a paper bag as a plucky junior attorney at a slick NYC law firm.
Suits isn’t clever, apart from the name (Suits referring either to “lawsuit” . . . or that thing with the jacket and tie you wear to court – I’ll sit back as your brain implodes). What it is, however, is preposterously more-ish. As with Billions, the characters are dashed outlines rather than fleshed-out human beings, the dialogue transcendentally hokey. But golly, each 45-minute episode blazes by. It’s one of the shows that literally lives up to the binge-viewing cliche: by the end credits, you’re bloated, guilt-ridden and craving more.
The dawn of the new Bad TV era can be dated to House of Cards (Netflix) in 2013. House of Cards came to us in the fancy duds of Prestige TV, with David Fincher producing and directing early episodes, and Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright starring.
However, the series couldn’t hide its terrific crassness for long – indeed, in the very first instalment, it cast aside its pretentious vestments and stood there, flapping in the breeze in full Bad TV glory. This was announced in an early scene in which Kevin Spacey snapped the neck of a stricken dog as he monologued to camera in a syrupy Dixieland burr. It was cheesy, exploitative, with panto catcall levels of melodrama. And it was irresistible.
If House of Cards heralded the return of Bad TV, it also surely hastened the demise of Prestige programming. Twelve months later, HBO – home of The Sopranos, year zero for Prestige TV – debuted The Knick, a virtuoso portrait of megalomania and the forging of modern America from arthouse doyen Steven Soderbergh (it screened on HBO subsidiary Cinemax).
With Clive Owen as a maverick surgeon in 19th-century New York, The Knick was Prestige Television on growth hormones. Every frame was to die for (literally if you happened to be one of Dr Thackery’s patients), the storylines were non-linear, nobody was painted as anything other than mercurial and amoral.
This was Prestige TV on a platter and, after two seasons, it was done – cancelled and unmourned. Apparently modern audiences crave something other than a virtuoso exploration of megalomania and the forging of modern America from arthouse doyen Steven Soderbergh. Damian Lewis and his Terrible American Accent pretending to be a hedge-fund wizard for instance. As with all the the best guilty pleasures on the small screen, Billions may be of negligible nutritional value but it’s an absolute caper to sit through – irrefutable evidence that, to be good, sometimes you have to be really, really bad.