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‘Billions’ review: Showtime’s new series tough to warm up to, tougher to love

David Costabile stars as Mike

David Costabile stars as Mike "Wags" Wagner and Damian Lewis as Bobby "Axe" Axelrod in "Billions" (Season 1, Episode 1) airing on Showtime. Photo Credit: Showtime / JoJo Whilden

THE SERIES “Billions”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) is a hedge fund barracuda based out of Westport, Connecticut, who has come within the crosshairs of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). “Axe” may be crooked but he won’t be easy to bag: Brilliant, charming, ruthless, he’s covered his tracks reasonably well, although he also tends to be rash and impulsive (which helps to uncover the tracks). At least Axe married well — his wife, Lara (Malin Akerman), is resourceful and vengeful, but she keeps her own tracks well-hidden. Rhoades doesn’t want to imperil his near-perfect conviction record, so is reluctant to go after Axe, but he may also have a conflict of interest. His wife, Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), works as in-house therapist for Axelrod Capital and knows all the secrets.

Produced by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (“Ocean’s Thirteen,” “Runaway Jury”) and New York Times financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, this series was shot in and around New York (including, briefly, the East End).

MY SAY Pop culture needs pop villains — easily recognized, readily packaged, instantly hateable — and the wolves of Wall Street have obliged us that role for decades. All that money and power, all that mystique and jargon that cloaks motives reduced to one word — greed — makes them irresistible to the Hollywood military-industrial complex. In fact, those “wolves” are now even tropes and have been ever since Gordon Gekko explained just how good greed is.

But TV dramas can’t subsist on tropes alone. They need living, breathing human characters we can see eye-to-eye with. We want, maybe even need, to feel their pain on some level. “Pain” makes for a good story at the very least.

Based on the first three episodes of “Billions,” it’s clear this still-formidable and intelligent newcomer has met that particular challenge only halfway. Chilly to the touch, “Billions” is tough to warm up to, tougher to love. This is essentially an office-place drama that has the “office” down perfectly — from the hedge fund trader patter to the cold inner sanctum of the DA’s office where deals are cut and the bad guys are kneecapped. “Billions” is also carefully observed and carefully reported. Sorkin, an excellent Times reporter and frequent TV commentator, knows this world intimately. He’s got a good ear too, for both the rhythm and language. “It’s a crush-the-other-guy business,” says Axe, who gets all the best lines. “It’s like Highlander — there can only be one.” Or this to someone who offers him blandishments: “My cholesterol is high enough. Don’t butter my [expletive] too.”

The human part comes harder to “Billions.” Your first glimpse of Chuck Rhoades is on the floor, bound and gagged, in some sort of BDSM role-play. It’s both comical and seriously kinky, while also his one concession to the dark side, as viewers quickly learn. Otherwise, he’s a (figurative) Boy Scout, choirboy and Wall Street sheriff, all rolled into one. His moral code is impeccable, also unyielding. Conversely, Wendy Rhoades has no sleepless nights over her deep ties to Axe. Needless to say, this husband/wife dynamic, enlivened by their XXX-rated playtime, is complicated. Also inscrutable.

Then there’s the human Veg-o-matic himself. Axe has no scruples and just the faintest trace of a heartbeat. Slicing and dicing his way through deals and people, he pauses occasionally to make extravagant charitable donations — which also happen to be good for business. But deep down, he’s still a kid from Yonkers who once delivered papers, went to Hofstra and now enjoys nothing more than exacting tributes from those whose blood runs blue.

Beyond these line drawings? Again, not clear, although Lewis and Giamatti draw them just about perfectly.

Of course we know the impending battle will be a clash of titans. Someone will lose, someone will win. But three episodes in, I didn’t care much about the ultimate outcome because I barely even knew the combatants.

BOTTOM LINE Showtime calls this smart series an “examination” of profit, which seems just about the right word. Well-written, directed and acted, “Billions” is still badly in need of a more human touch.


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