Times have changed since we idolised TV's impossibly rich. These days we love to hate the Kardashians, the Graysons from Revenge and certain members of Lucious Lyon's clan on Empire. But there's a particular section of rich-listers we've reserved special wrath for, post-GFC. We'd rather watch those evil Wall Streeters get their comeuppance as the megalomaniacs they clearly are, than hate on the Crawleys from Downton Abbey.
Billions, the new Showtime series on SoHo, (Tuesdays, 8.30pm), exploits this public shift in perception nicely. Its villain is hedge fund king Bobby "Axe" Axelrod (Damian Lewis): super-smart, charming when he needs to be, yet possibly not in possession of inner wealth. Even if it appears otherwise.
Following the death of his partners in 9-11, he pays for their kids to continue their private schooling. He rescues his favourite pizza joint from the financial brink. Then he risks public flagellation by whacking $63 million on a beachfront pad in the Hamptons.
On the other side of the coin is aggressive US attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), who goes after Axelrod after receiving a tip-off he's insider trading. So begins a war of the New York titans, or, depending on your tolerance for this two-man Game of Thrones, a calculated, conniving catfight between a couple of middle-aged white guys. This of course involves much plotting, double-crossing and Wall Street jargon. It can get confusing. Does Bobby buy the house because he has nothing to hide or would his innocence lead him to a more restrained decision? Who knows? The discussions surrounding the issue come from a clever but verbose script, one that demands your full attention. It comes from the pen of Ocean's Thirteen writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien. (And no, that's not Aaron Sorkin's brother on the screenwriting credits but Andrew Ross Sorkin, a New York Times journalist who wrote a book about the financial crisis.)
Despite all the market speak, the narrative is compelling, an acerbic black humour washing down the numbers. The most satisfying, likeable character so far is Wendy Rhoades, (Maggie Siff, who played Rachel Menken on Mad Men). As Axe company's in-house psychologist, she pumps up the staff with the sort of language a sex therapist might use. That's no coincidence either - the episode was bookended by a level of kinkiness that suggests the good attorney might like to push people around in public but he likes things the other way around in the bedroom.
Wendy also makes for one of the show's most convenient yet questionable plot devices, in that she's also married to Chuck. But it's pleasing to see a female in just as powerful a position as her husband, unlike Chuck's Waspy mother, who has spent most of her marriage in the kitchen. Meanwhile, as Bobby's wife Lara, Malin Akerman may appear to be revamping her role on Trophy Wife but it's not long before Lara proves herself almost as threatening as her other half.
Tonally, Billions is its own beast, marrying the whip-smart banter of Suits with the epic scheming of a soap. These people are not always easy to like, and they rattle off their lines so quickly they'll leave your head spinning. Just two of the billions of reasons to watch it.