“Billions” creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien may not like this, but in “Billions”– which finishes its fourth season on Showtime this Sunday– they have invented the sublime, upscale modern version of “Dallas.” Their show is a treasure that manages to score 750,000 viewers on Sunday nights even when it’s up against “Game of Thrones.”
“Billions” stars Paul Giamatti and Maggie Siff, as Chuck Rhoades and his wife Wendy. Damian Lewis’s Bobby Axelrod is their version of JR Ewing. Giamatti is playing Cliff Barnes, Siff is Sue Ellen Ewing. Chuck started out as the US Attorney in New York trying to nail wicked hedge funder Bobby Axelrod and his company Axe Capital. Siff’s Wendy works in house for Axe Capital as their shrink and spiritual guru.
In the beginning, the show was about Chuck, the good guy, pursuing his wife’s boss for prosecution. Bobby, aka “Axe,” was married to Malin Akerman and two kids. Chuck was holier than thou in his crusade against Wall Streeter Bobby. In the background, Chuck was also plagued by his wealthy father, Chuck Sr. played with much evil glee by Jeffrey DeMunn.
In time the premise shifted. Because Chuck and Maggie have a secret– they’re into S&M big time– their skeletons in the closet were as bad as Bobby’s. Eventually, through blackmail, Axe was able to corrupt them. I think this was also because Giamatti and Lewis weren’t in a lot of scenes together, and they were the stars. So they began to work together. Then Koppelman and Levien added a character, Taylor Mason, non-binary, frighteningly smart, played by Asia Kate Dillon, who uses “they” as a pronoun. They is a find (from “Orange is the New Black”). They’s sensational.
As the show has advanced, they dropped Akerman so Axe could move around more freely. This season they added the exceptional Nina Arianda as Rebecca, Axe’s lover and new business partner. Arianda has lighted up the screen (can you say that?). In Sunday’s season finale, she finishes a season of amazing work. There is also David Costabile as Wags, Axe’s loyal valet, so to speak, his Sancho Panza. If JR Ewing had had a Wags, he never would have been shot.
There is also, much like “Dallas,” several Greek choruses on both sides, secondary supporting characters who are so well drawn that when I’ve run into the actors at New York parties, I call them all by their fictional names. And that’s high praise. They are each indelible. This includes Toby Leonard Moore, Clancy Brown, even John Malkovich. Sara Stiles, who has a minor role, is nominated for a Tony Sunday night for “Tootsie.” Condola Rashad is a featured player!
So why no Emmy or Golden Globe love? I’ve looked at the Gold Derby website. “Billions” doesn’t exist. Aside from “Game of Thrones” or “This is Us,” “Billions” should be a watercooler show with lots of buzz. Is it Showtime? Can they not work the system? Giammatti and Lewis should be in Best Actor, Siff in Best Actress, Dillon and Arianda in Supporting Actress. Kevin Pollak outdid himself this season in a guest shot as Taylor’s dad.
Koppelman and Levien’s scripts sing with wit, inside jokes. and smart talk. They also use the best music in a series since “The Sopranos.” The look of the show is distinctly Wall Street, money -obsessed, insular. It’s all sleek and minimalist on Axe’s end, old New York with the Rhoadeses. What everyone forgets is that “Dallas” — in its first five or six seasons– was like a Whitman sampler of delectable chocolates. “Billions” is the same, although they’ve upped the game from chocolate truffles to the kind that cost thousands of dollars to shave onto pasta. The aroma is intoxicating.
I just about never review TV shows. I do love “Mrs. Maisel” and “Veep.” I thought Peter Dinklage was worth all of “Game of Thrones.” Sterling K. Brown should be a movie star. All that said, Emmy voters should just binge watch “Billions” and give these people some respect.