There are several ways to describe the appeal of Showtime’s new drama Billions, but co-creator and executive producer Brian Koppelman distills it thusly: “Badass actors doing badass things.”
Indeed, the highlight of the series, which follows a battle of wills between a hedge fund king and the man trying to bring him down, is the ensemble cast. At the top of the heap, Paul Giamatti stars as U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, who becomes increasingly obsessed with nailing Damian Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod, a self-made billionaire whose success involves being more than just being really lucky playing the stock market.
For years, we’ve been interested in hedge fund guys, and how these people walk around like nation states,” Koppelman, who created the show with his writing partner David Levien and esteemed New York Times financial columnist and Too Big to Fail author Andrew Ross Sorkin, tells TVGuide.com.
“They have this tremendous amount of access, influence and power [that’s] kind of unchecked in certain ways. And then we started learning about U.S. attorneys and the power they have. Different from D.A.s, they have tremendous amount of discretion in what they go after.
In the fallout from the financial crisis, there were very few prosecutions of institutions that America feels were culpable. Why is that? What would make somebody prosecute or not prosecute? That’s a question we’re really fascinated by.”
As we first learned on Homeland, Lewis is particularly adept at playing the maybe bad guy. And even though we’re told that Bobby is corrupting the system, don’t be surprised if you find yourself rooting for him, even if you can’t relate to wielding billions of dollars
“We don’t spend a lot of time on likability and being sympathetic,” Koppelman says. “We try to find characters who are fascinating, and we find people lock into characters who have a goal that they’re chasing and who are special in some way and can somehow harness their resources in service of their goal. If you make the goal really specific, and if you make what they’re harnessing really interesting, they then become relatable. Not for the typical reasons of, ‘Oh that character’s just like me,’ but for a deeper reason like, ‘That character is willing to do the thing I secretly wish I could.’ Perhaps it echoes something more primal in people that they wish could access.”
Then again, “Axe,” as he’s affectionately called by his peers, may not necessarily be the villain of the show, even though his character is used to explore the excesses of Wall Street types. “At some point they’re going to have to take a moral view of this world,” “Lewis says. “Does money corrupt? Is it possible to make that much money without straying across the line occasionally?
How can you use your money to do good, or are you only in it for self-interest? These are questions we’d quite like to know about some of the richest people in the world out there. I hope the show explores that a little bit, but you’re also going to need an element of cat and mouse. And I think who’s the cat and who the mouse is going to change. Chuck will be shown to be equally ambitious and ruthless when he needs to be.”
Watching these titans battle it out is tremendous fun, even if at times it veers a little over the top. However, the show is careful to show both men in their respective worlds, which, again, is filled with top-notch cast members.
Assistant prosecutors Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) and Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad) support Chuck on his quest for Axe’s head, while Axe leans on right-hand man Mike “Wags” Wagner (David Costabile) and his wife Lara (Malin Akerman) to weather the storm of the prosecution. “We’re as interested in how they manage their own fiefdoms as we are in the interplay between one another,” Koppelman says. “We hope that people are engaged with each world.”