There’s a particular moment in new television series I’ve come to think of as the Prestige Flare. To even the most casual of viewers, the Prestige Flare is obvious, because it’s designed to spell out in big, flashing, occasionally blood-spattered letters that this is Not Your Mother’s Television Show. The Prestige Flare may have begun as a genuine corrective to the sanitized, advertiser-beholden norms of network TV, but over time, it’s ossified into a norm of its own. Like another once-controversial, now-normalized form of entertainment, you know the Prestige Flare when you see it: siblings having sex (Game of Thrones), geniuses taking drugs (The Knick), series juxtaposing antiheroes’ dirty work with their oh-so-normcore surroundings (The Sopranos, The Americans).
All of those shows are great ones, and all of those Prestige Flares do exactly what they’re supposed to: flag the viewers’ interest while accurately signaling the darkness to come. But now that every Serious Drama has to compete with a glut of other Serious Dramas, all vying to demonstrate just how serious they are to increasingly jaded audiences as quickly as possible, the Prestige Flare is in danger of becoming too blatant for its own good — and too much of an end in itself, as showrunners start to put the ultraviolent cart before the morally ambiguous horse.
Which is how we get the opening scene of Billions, in which a faceless woman pees on a prone Paul Giamatti during a BDSM scenario. It’s a Prestige Flare so bright I had to pause my screener and wait for the temporary blindness to wear off.
As Giamatti’s presence suggests, Billions is Showtime’s highest-profile debut in some time, and an expertly targeted one at that: with Homeland and Ray Donovan advancing in years, as Showtime series are wont to do, and younger shows like The Affair and Penny Dreadful courting female and genre audiences, respectively, there’s a wide-open spot for a new, ambitious, and yes, dude-centric show in the lineup. And Billions has the perfect men for the job: co-creator and New York Times financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin brings pedigree; co-creators and veteran screenwriting duo Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Ocean’s Thirteen) bring experience; Giamatti, Showtime vet Damian Lewis, and Sons of Anarchy‘s Maggie Siff bring star power.
The only potential problem is that Billions is a financial drama, which means the epic-in-theory clash of the titans between U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Giamatti) and insider-trading hedge funder Bobby Axelrod (Lewis) will play out through less-than-epic tactics like SEC filings and deposing board members of a family-owned pastry company. Call it The Big Short conundrum: how to make the most powerful men in the world and the dealings between them as interesting in practice as they are on paper.
Billions has several solutions to said conundrum, some more effective than others. First and foremost are the series’ leads: as a scion of mega-privilege out to earn his populist bona fides and a publicly generous, privately ruthless self-made man who doesn’t need them, Giamatti and Lewis make perfect foils. Siff ties it all together as Wendy, Chuck’s wife, Axelrod’s in-house psychiatrist/banker whisperer, and the faceless woman in the aforementioned BDSM scene. The Claire Underwood to Chuck’s Frank, Wendy appears equally loyal to her boss and her husband, complicating the playing field while making full use of Siff’s talents (best, if briefly, witnessed in her role as Rachel Menken, Don Draper’s first great Mad Men mistress).
Siff also turns in the most naturalistic performance of the bunch, serving as a canny, empathetic intermediary between two extremes of camp. Giamatti, in particular, leans into the cheese, and he’s got the right idea: when an actor is handed as endless a procession of metaphors — prosecuting financial crimes is tantamount, thus far, to bullfighting, horse racing, and programmed cell death — as he is, there’s really no other choice. Lewis, too, hams it up as a Yonkers tough guy made good, complete with a wife (Malin Akerman) equally willing to play ball and a Freddy’s BBQ-style pizza joint where he occasionally holds court.
It’s no accident that House of Cards parallels pop up on both sides of the Chuck-Bobby divide, because Billions ultimately adopts the same strategy for making its dry source material sexy enough for premium cable, emphasis on the “sexy.” Step one: simplify the inner workings of high finance until “insider trading” becomes “rewarding a source with a bag stuffed with cash and gold watches.” Step two: wash said inner workings down with enough sexual hijinks to lure in even the most financially illiterate among us. With bondage play, a little person fetish, a lesbian sex tape, and a graphic description of the joys of anilingus packed into just three episodes, Billions has this down and then some.
Compare this to The Big Short‘s similar, but far more self-aware, device of calling in a sardonic Anthony Bourdain or a mid-bubble bath Margot Robbie to read off the fine print. Where Adam McKay took our inability to pay attention to the non-Robbies of the world and threw it in our face, Billions simply indulges it, deploying sex, drugs, and/or rock ‘n’ roll at regular intervals to maintain viewer interest. (One episode opens with a minor character sleeping with her book editor, who’s neither seen nor heard from again, in a scene several steps below sexposition on the “was that necessary?” scale.)
Make no mistake, though: all of this makes for enormously compelling, eminently binge-able melodrama, powered by deliciously twisted dynamics between deliciously twisted people. It just doesn’t make for anything particularly smart. Shonda Rhimes is currently making a fortune, as many have before her, off stories that are ostensibly about hyper-competent people doing their jobs, but are actually about attractive people sleeping with and betraying each other, sometimes in hilariously implausible ways. The only difference between her work and series like Billions, or House of Cards, is that Rhimes never had to pretend one of her shows wasn’t — gasp! — a soap at heart. Under all Billions’ flares, it turns out, there’s not a whole lot of prestige. And that’s fine.
Billions premieres on Showtime this Sunday at 10 pm.