The smartest dumb show on TV that everybody will be talking about

The zippy saga about filthy-rich white guys is an antidote to self-serious antihero dramas

Paul Giamatti and Maggie Siff in Billions. Photograph: Jeff Neumann/Showtime

Paul Giamatti and Maggie Siff in Billions. Photograph: Jeff Neumann/Showtime

 

Billions, the labyrinthine drama about a shady hedge-fund investor and the shady district attorney on his tail, is by far and away the smartest dumb show on TV. On the one hand it’s by-the-book Prestige Television, a glossy study of self-destructive antiheroes, moral grey areas and the soul-blackening effects of power.

On the other, it offers everything the golden-era box sets didn’t. Billions has no time for the slow-burn and never skimps on surface-level fun, be it the whip-wielding sex workers or chic celebrity cameos. Factor in its exuberant refusal to take itself too seriously, and it’s a show that above all else will keep you entertained. Or to put it another way: the exact opposite of Mad Men.

With its fourth season starting this month and as pulpily addictive as ever, it’s fair to say the writers have pulled off a neat trick. In the post-recession world, drawing breezy entertainment from a story about crooked and decadent financiers is no easy task.

On top of that, the male ego is no longer the small-screen goldmine it once was. While a decade or two ago, the wounded psyches of Tony Soprano and co had us making a beeline for the water cooler, audiences have now become wise to privilege, and there’s no escaping the fact that Billions is a show about two filthy-rich white guys and their very expensive game of one-upmanship.

Billions: Call it Wolf of Wall Street syndrome. Photograph: Jeff Neumann/Showtime
Billions: Call it Wolf of Wall Street syndrome. Photograph: Jeff Neumann/Showtime

At first, the show did fall into the cake-and-eat-it trap it laid for itself: wanting us to frown at the moral bankruptcy, but feast our eyes on the beachfront penthouses and caviar-laden sex parties – call it Wolf of Wall Street syndrome. But its improvement was quick and constant. Part of that is down to the flair of the two lead actors – Damian Lewis and, in particular, Paul Giamatti, whose growling alpha-dog makes a nice contrast to his usual luckless-schmuck routine – and a pair of characters that, as committed husbands and family men, confound the Jordan Belfort stereotype. But after an opening episode or two that indulged their posturing, the writers have spent three seasons ensuring the main duo are more than matched by the women around them when it comes to kingsize egos, narrative drive and razor-sharp putdowns.

Maggie Siff, playing a therapist who is both Lewis’s dedicated lieutenant and Giamatti’s devoted wife, is the standout in this regard. A model of soft-spoken scheming, Siff has mastered the smile that doesn’t quite reach the eyes and her unshakable assurance smooths over a plot contrivance that should be beyond all boundaries of credibility. A

nd there’s more to her than menace: the husband-and-wife trips she and Giamatti make to New York sex dungeons, her trying dutifully to understand his BDSM fetish, make for one of the more oddly poignant subplots.

Billions: Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor is a masterstroke. Photograph: Jeff Neumann/Showtime
Billions: Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor is a masterstroke. Photograph: Jeff Neumann/Showtime

The real masterstroke, though, was the introduction in season two of Taylor, a hedge-fund whizz played by Asia Kate Dillon, and the first non-gender binary character to appear in mainstream US TV. Taylor’s gender identity, while addressed, is a topic that never becomes the character-defining issue a lesser show would have made it. Instead, it is left largely in the background, a smart counterpoint to the macho theatrics of high finance.

It’s proof that the endless machismo is written with a healthy dose of self-awareness. Or, as Kevin Pollack says in a season-four cameo as Taylor’s dad: “Just because I’m no good at it, doesn’t mean I think that woke stuff is all for idiots.”

The Trump administration, which came to power between the show’s second and third seasons, has been alluded to via the introduction of a villainous attorney general whose chain-of-command depravity means turning a blind eye to white-collar crime and state-sanctioned abuse. But make no mistake: Billions has no designs on state-of-the-nation earnestness. The tone here is set by showboating speeches, machine-gun pop-culture references and a snaking plot that stays just the right side of ludicrous.

John Malkovich as Russuin mobster Grigor Andolov. Photograph: Jeff Neumann/Showtime
John Malkovich chews up the scenery  as Russuin mobster Grigor Andolov. Photograph: Jeff Neumann/Showtime

Its directors’ list reads like a rolodex of Hollywood’s more enterprising talents – John Dahl, Alex Gibney, John Singleton, Karyn Kusama and Captain Marvel’s Anna Bowden/Ryan Fleck duo have all helmed the odd episode – while the secondary cast is a merry-go-round of familiar faces (Amy from The West Wing! The prison guard from Shawshank! Goose from Top Gun!) and scenery-chewing A-listers.

To the latter camp has been added John Malkovich, dialling it up to 11 as a quietly psychotic Russian mobster. The new season also brings in 90s cult icon Samantha Mathis as a tough-talking consigliere to Taylor, whose breakaway firm is funded by Malkovich’s blood-stained rubles.

All of which forces cat and mouse to team up at the start of the new season, whose opening episodes deliver more of the good stuff: corporate backstabbings in glass skyscrapers and threats snarled in oak-panelled rooms. In the end Billions is just about the most finely crafted trash on TV. There’s plenty of substance, and it pays to give it some thought. But there’s plenty of style too – and it pays just as much to give it no thought at all. – Guardian

Billions starts on Sky Atlantic on March 20th

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