BILLIONS (2016-2022)

BILLIONS is one of those premium cable shows that I’m never sure how many people actually watch, but the sixth season — yes, sixth and alleged final season — recently premiered on January 23rd, 2022.

Created by Brian Koppelman and David Levien of ROUNDERS, KNOCKAROUND GUYS, and OCEAN’S THIRTEEN fame, BILLIONS takes a similarly deep dive into the minutiae of men skirting the edges of the finance world. It’s has the appearance of an expensive, emotionally dramatic financial legal thriller, complete with tons of recognizable faces talking at each other and, when they aren’t talking at each other, they’re toying around with some grand destructive spectacle.

BILLIONS features Chuck Rhoades (a very game Paul Giamatti) as the Attorney General of New York City whose white whale is the ‘self-made financial empire man’ Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod (HOMELAND’s Damian Lewis). Chuck is married to psychologist Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff, MAD MEN, SONS OF ANARCHY), who Axe ends up enlisting at his firm while Chuck spends his nights indulging his own more prurient subservient interests.

There are a number of more intriguingly drawn characters, including Axe’s right-hand-man, the extraordinarily hedonistic Wags (BREAKING BAD’s Gale, David Costabile), Chuck’s ice-cold father (the ever-brilliant character actor Jeffrey DeMunn), and Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK), Axe’s VIP non-binary quant.

I’m sure there are some folks who watch BILLIONS for how it represents the machinations of the financial and political world. I wouldn’t know as none of that really interests me. I watch for the Iannucci-esque verbal tongue lashings of the show.

Ultimately, BILLIONS is a soap opera, and I don’t mean that as a pejorative. I enjoy the feints and the relationship turns and characters lapsing out of the show, only to find their way back in. However, after the first two seasons, it becomes blatantly obvious that any brutal hits to any of the major players would quickly be retracted or written around. This is television, and television likes to maintain a status quo, but nothing takes the sheen off of a sharp and biting high-end series like seeing a character written into a corner and then, one ep later, is back on top, none the worse for wear, even if the entire series is built around two monsters jockeying to see the other punished.

Nonetheless, BILLIONS has more than a few compelling facets, such as its portrayal of the NYC food scene. The majority of the show takes place in restaurants and diners, and those dining scenes genuinely reflect the history and disposition of the characters Chuck and Axe are consistently meeting with throughout their day. Both often know their colleagues’ favorite haunts, or at least know where to suggest, so one meal might be Chuck dropping by late-morning to meet a rich Italian at their favorite very dated luncheon spot, then two hours later he’s picking at a deli sandwich while complaining about a recent wrong to an ally.

These ritualistic eating scenes worked quite well at giving the actors something to do while spitting their lines back-and-forth until midway through season five, when COVID shut down production. When it re-opened, well, I don’t quite want to spoil matters, but the restaurant outings dried up. Interactions fundamentally changed, forcing the show to pivot its directorial mode. I’m not 100% sure it was successful — you can be the judge — but it’s interesting.

But I digress: there’s also the fashion. Since this is, more often than not, a show about men talking at each other, about -rich- men talking at each other ad nauseam, those behind the scenes know that these men have look good, look -expensive-, and still have their clothing reflect their personas. (I’ll note that I’m no expert here, but even I can see that they put a lot of effort into the costume design.)

For instance, Chuck is always wearing immaculately conservative — but yet striking — suits that bring out his blue eyes.

Axe is the polar opposite, opting for high/low looks, more upscale versions of what a college kid would have been wearing in the 90s: expensive trainers, tailored jeans, excessively aged and distressed band shirts made to look like he’s been carting them around his entire life, but still fit like a glove. Like Zuckerberg, he has a penchant for hoodies, but his hoodies cost four figures and greatly flatter him.

Then, as a contrast, you have Taylor, who very specifically dresses in non-gendered, but very striking ways; all darker colors, longer but open suit coats, black tops, loose-but-still-fitted vests.

Lastly, there are the music needle drops. The show has grown into a comfortable rhythm of opening up swinging with some classic rock that costs a fortune to license. At one point, not only does METALLICA appear on the show, they play a live show (or at least appear to).

While BILLIONS narratively never feels as expensive as everything around it, all of the little touches work in its favor to create something that, while it’s not unique, has the veneer of uniqueness and, sometimes that’s more than enough.

Season One trailer:

Season Six trailer: