by Robin Wigglesworth | Financial Times | August 11, 2023
It’s hard to say exactly where Billions — the TV series about an increasingly fictional hedge fund manager, his legal nemesis and the spreading chaos left by their feud — went a little off the rails.
It might have been when the brilliant but junior analyst Taylor Mason was suddenly promoted to chief investment officer of what is supposed to be one of the world’s biggest hedge funds, only to jump ship and then be bought back. Or perhaps the entire plot line around a serpentine Russian oligarch Grigor Andolov played by John Malkovich. And even in this day and age, the US Treasury secretary doing a bit of gleeful insider trading is a tad implausible.
For any finance industry pedants, any veneer of subject legitimacy has pretty much disappeared, despite the occasional cameo from the likes of Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon and hedge fund manager Marc Lasry. Admitting you enjoy Billions is not something you should do in a Wall Street job interview. Or in the pages of the FT.
But the show — originally about the dance between Damian Lewis’s money manager Bobby Axelrod and Paul Giamatti’s masochistic attorney Chuck Rhoades — has always been elevated (and occasionally rescued) from leaps of fantasy by solid direction, crisp dialogue and superlative acting. It’s simply cracking entertainment.
Both the flaws and strengths of Billions are apparent in the seventh and final season. Some aspects remain preposterous, such as someone spotting Axelrod’s signature (“semi strong form efficiency”) trading style in some energy stocks. The celebrity cameos are painful. Most problematically, the show doesn’t crackle as much as it did in its earlier seasons. Lewis’s absence from the sixth season and reduced role in the seventh (after the passing of his wife Helen McCrory) means that the magnetic Giamatti’s deeply-flawed legal crusader doesn’t have the foil that often electrified the show.
But if you manage to swallow the occasional reality-defying twists — and let’s face it, doctors and lawyers have been bemoaning the factual fidelity of their own TV treatments for decades — then Billions remains very enjoyable.
The cast is superb. The new primary antagonist, megalomaniac hedge fund magnate Michael Prince, lacks the complexity of Axelrod, but is well played by Corey Stoll. Even minor characters like ethically-challenged fund manager “Dollar” Bill Stearn (Kelly AuCoin), gormless trader Dudley Mafee (Dan Soder) or Rhoades’s lothario father Chuck Sr (Jeffrey DeMunn) are so solidly constructed and acted that they can make scenes pop.
Showrunner Brian Koppelman has said that Billions is ostensibly about the role of billionaires in society. But at a time when too many shows try too hard to “say something”, its saving grace has always been that entertainment is at its core.
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