When Will Emmy Voters Notice?
by Greg Braxton | LA Times | March 3, 2020
“Billions,” Showtime’s acclaimed drama about the cutthroat world of New York finance and politics, is about to launch its fifth season in May, just in time to catch the wave of an election season in which two billionaires are running for president.
But although real-life billionaire Mark Cuban has made a few appearances on the show playing himself, don’t expect President Donald Trump or Democratic candidate Mike Bloomberg to make any cameos during the upcoming season. The same goes for billionaire Tom Steyer, who dropped out of the race after his largely self-financed campaign failed to catch fire in the South Carolina primary.
Not that “Billions” needs them. The series already has more than enough political intrigue and razor-sharp personal dynamics in the blood feud pitting federal government watchdog Charles “Chuck” Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) against wealthy hedge-fund king Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis).
And producers suggest the stakes will be even higher this season with the addition to the cast of Julianna Margulies (“The Good Wife”) and Corey Stoll (“House of Cards”).
“There is no doubt this season features titanic figures at each other’s throat[s],” said “Billions” executive producer Brian Koppelman, who runs the series with fellow executive producer David Levien. “People are coming up against figures of equal size, which makes these conflicts life-and-death — existential.”
Last season’s shaky truce between Rhoades and Axelrod has collapsed and the two are again at war. Escalating tensions, nonbinary mathematics superwhiz Taylor Mason (Emmy nominee Asia Kate Dillon) is forced to rejoin Axelrod’s firm after their attempt to establish a rival company was sabotaged by Axelrod, with assistance from Rhoades. Mason has vowed to get even. Meanwhile, Rhoades’ estranged wife, corporate therapist Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), is also at a crossroads. She is continuing to work for Axelrod while exploring her growing independence from her husband, making that already delicate triangle even more explosive.
Although “Billions” has become a critics’ favorite — and one of Showtime’s most highly rated offerings — since its debut in 2016, the series has been regularly snubbed by Emmy voters even though Lewis and Giamatti are past Emmy winners (Lewis for “Homeland,” Giamatti for the HBO limited series “John Adams”).
In an interview from their offices in New York, Koppelman and Levien dropped some clues about the coming season, their thoughts about billionaires running for the Oval Office, and how they feel about being overlooked by the Emmys.
“Billions” deals with the intersection between the financial and the political. When it first came on the air, could you have ever imagined a time when three billionaires would be running for President at the same time?
Koppelman: While we weren’t directly thinking about national politics, we were noticing that Americans seem to be increasingly enthralled with people who have billions of dollars and the power that comes along with that. We were curious as to why so many of us, so many Americans, were willing to overlook shortcomings of character in a trade-off for enjoying characteristics like verbal acuity, charm, a certain kind of facile intellect.
If you put such a character in the government who was politically savvy and used all the powers of government not to serve necessarily the people’s interest but to serve his own interest … we did think there was something in that architecture that spoke to the world we were observing. It’s not that we thought there would be three billionaires running for President. But we felt there was an undercurrent that was changing the country in a certain way. So this isn’t a terrible surprise to us either.
At its core, the show revolves around the battle between Chuck and Axe to destroy each other. That was shaken up last season by Taylor, but it now seems to be returning to the battle royale.
Levien: One of the things that made the battle and the friction between Chuck and Axe really work was that although in many ways they are different, they also share similar characteristics. They want to be the person calling the shots. They believe completely in their vision of the world. They both use power to satisfy their own agendas. We had a good time playing that out for a couple of years.
When they found themselves in a situation where they needed to make an alliance to save their own skin, we thought it would be a fascinating opportunity to tell that story and to realize how potent they would be as an allied force. But when you’re dealing with two characters with massive egos and worldviews, those kinds of alliances can only survive for a finite amount of time. So without giving spoilers, we’re going to see how long two people like that can be rowing in the same direction before they decide who should be in charge of the boat.
Koppelman: Toward the end of last season, Chuck has a realization, whether he is right in his analysis or not. He is certain he is right, that the root of all his troubles — what led him away from the most honorable version of himself — is Bobby Axelrod. Once he has that realization, he has to move toward eliminating Axe.
What can you tell us about Julianna Margulies and Corey Stoll coming aboard?
Levien: Corey plays Mike Prince, originally from the Midwest. He’s a business operator and investor. He’s basically got the same net worth as Axe. He’s devoted himself toward the public good in many ways, which is grating to Axe. Julianna comes into the story in a different way. We don’t want to spoil how she and Chuck come together but she is a sociology professor and a bestselling author in the world of relationships and sexuality. She and Chuck have a very interesting relationship.
What has been the reaction to Taylor playing such a major part of the “Billions” universe? Asia is such a fascinating performer.
Koppelman: This is the perfect meeting between a character and an actor. Taylor is every bit as smart as Axe and Chuck and Wendy. [They] began the show with the keenest moral conscience of any of them. For us, [they are] the canary in the mine. But instead of oxygen, what the canary is showing us is about temptation — whether anybody can retain their moral grounding with the level of temptation and opportunity that the financial world makes available. Asia is able to articulate that journey with rigorous and ruthless honesty.
What’s in store for Wendy?
Levien: Maggie is an incredible actor. What she pulls off is just amazing. She is playing someone who is now determined to be responsible for their own happiness. But as we all know, just because you break up with someone doesn’t mean they’re out of your life. Complications always seem to find their way in.
With its cast and pedigree, “Billions” ranks high among the elite dramas on TV. Does it bother you that the series has not gotten more Emmy recognition?
Koppelman: It’s always wonderful to be recognized by your peers. But we are so lucky to be able to make the exact show we want to make. We have been…
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