Showtime's 'Billions' mines new energy — now with Corey Stoll at the helm
Be warned: The review below contains plenty of spoilers about past and present episodes of Billions.
Showtime's Billions is attempting one of the most difficult maneuvers in scripted television: A major star transplant.
Original series co-star Damian Lewis — a talented British actor who gave his billionaire bad boy character Bobby "Axe" Axelrod an interesting Yonkers-meets-New England accent – left at the end of the fifth season. (This is something Lewis has done before on Showtime, leaving the well-regarded drama Homeland after just three seasons.)
Story-wise, Lewis' departure was handled by a plotline which found Axelrod lamming it to Switzerland. Axe had to leave after his longtime antagonist, Paul Giamatti's relentlessly scheming New York Attorney General Chuck Rhoades, finally maneuvered him into committing a crime which might earn serious jail time.
But the rival billionaire who helped get Axe in that jam, Corey Stoll's principled mogul Mike Prince, bought up all of Axelrod's companies, taking over as head of the firm formerly known as Axe Capital — the rule-breaking hedge fund Rhoades had vowed to destroy.
Which means Stoll also now takes over as co-lead of Billions, replacing Lewis' win-at-any-costs hedge fund manager with a kingpin determined to build wealth ethically. Prince is devoted to disproving a contention Rhoades delivers later in the episode that "billionaires break the laws of decency, even while obeying the letter [of the law]" – a curious sentiment for a character who was himself born to wealth and privilege. More on that later.
A swap that just might work
Judging by the episode Showtime uncorked Sunday – and the first five new episodes critics got to see before this week's premiere — I have to say, this particular star transplant just might turn out to be a success.
First, I loved that Sunday's episode featured Axe's longtime right hand, Mike "Wags" Wagner (David Costabile), having a heart attack right after a workout on a Peloton bike. I could almost hear Peloton executives freaking out over yet another TV drama showing someone checking out on their product; Wags, who survives his health scare, even sneaks in a sly reference to Sex and the City's Mr. Big later in the episode.
But the incident also revealed that a bit of personal technology Prince asked all former Axe Capital employees to wear was actually sending their health information to a platform he could monitor without their knowledge. (Many key employees of Axe's hedge fund are forced to keep working for Prince, who assumes control of their employment contracts.)
Seems like this ethical business thing is a little tougher to achieve than Prince is ready to admit.
I don't expect this rejiggered Billions to develop many new fans. It's still a story focused on wealthy, influential, mostly white, mostly male people pushing institutions and the less wealthy around like chess pieces while pursuing their own, often petty personal agendas. The "B" story in Sunday's episode, featuring Michael McKean as a tacky billionaire who insists on disrupting his neighbors in a rural community – including Rhoades – by shooting off antique cannons twice a day, stands as one example.
It's still a story focused on wealthy, influential, mostly white, mostly male people pushing institutions and the less wealthy around like chess pieces while pursuing their own, often petty personal agendas.
But the change allows the series to ask some interesting questions. Are billionaires inherently immoral? Can Prince win over staffers used to Axe's hard-charging style with his nice-guy approach? And will I ever get used to the sports-geek analogies that Prince – a former star athlete – deploys in key scenes?
Remixing the relationships of longtime characters
There is a saucy, slick charm to the way these smart, driven characters bounce off each other while pressing their schemes to run the world, aligning with each other and then betraying each other. And Axe's removal gives producers a chance to remix the relationships among most of them.
Irony and hypocrisy are never far from the surface on Billions.
For example, Prince and his loyal Number Two, Roger "Scooter" Dunbar (Daniel Breaker), want to fire Wags, but learn he may have a more useful purpose. Maggie Siff's brilliant psychiatrist and Axe Capital's in-house performance coach Wendy Rhoades, a close ally of Axe's, doesn't trust Prince or his methods, leading them to adopt a quite different dynamic. Even Rhoades' Number Two in the Attorney General's office, Condola Rashad's coolly confident Kate Sacker, is re-considering her options while preparing for a Congressional run.
It's a series that has some storytelling quirks: Characters drop cultural references ranging from the ancient Roman statesman Cincinnatus to '70s/'80s action movie star Jan-Michael Vincent. In one episode. And one character tells another, "You are sassier than Claudia Conway on Mother's Day." Really.
But it's also a drama which highlights how a disturbing percentage of major events in business and society may be affected by the whims, passions and grudges of the uber-rich. It's a dynamic criticized by Rhoades himself, who tells Prince that – by definition – a person possessing more than a billion dollars in wealth is criminal.
Of course, he says this as a Yale-educated son of a wealthy powerbroker sitting on the porch of a sprawling farm he bought himself on a whim, trying to regroup and recharge after Axelrod slipped out of his grasp last season. Irony and hypocrisy are never far from the surface on Billions.
Last season, we saw Prince admit to bamboozling an early partner and deceive his own daughters to achieve what he wanted. As he tackles an ambitious new project which would remake New York City, the question remains whether he can reach the finish line while riding the fine line between aggressive ambition and unethical skulduggery.
Ultimately, much of the fun in this iteration of Billions will come from watching producers build a sleek new series around Stoll's Mike Prince – which seems a bit like changing tires on a car while it's moving.
Based on the material I've seen so far, fans are in for an exhilarating, surprising ride.
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