Showtime’s Billions concluded this past Sunday and with that finale comes the agonizing wait for season two. It was an unorthodox show in almost every way and is a bit of a throwback in style and tone to the great financial dramas of the past like Wall Street, Glengarry Glen Ross, and The Wolf of Wall Street.
It’s a show whose idea of an action scene is two men in an office shouting at one another and when it really clicked it was as compelling and rewarding as anything on television. Paul Giamatti has rarely been given the chance to develop a character in the longform and he did so to great effect here as D.A. Chuck Rhoades both in squaring off against Damian Lewis’ billionaire Bobby Axelrod and in the complexities of his marriage with Maggie Siff’s Wendy Rhoades. Lewis, so good on Homeland, is better here. He’s technically the villain of the piece but because so many of the characters operate in shades of gray there are plenty of moments where Axelrod is simply reacting to the increasingly shady actions perpetrated by Rhoades. The real gold comes from the supporting cast, with Toby Leonard Moore, David Costabile, and Kelly AuCoin delivering absolutely priceless grit, humor, and shading.
The big thing that made the first season of Billions so impressive above and beyond the performances and great writing was that it didn’t feel like a first season. It felt lived-in. Like the audience was boarding a vehicle that had left the station some time before. I recently rewatched two of my favorite shows of all time and there are plenty of moments in their first seasons where the magic the shows became known for wasn’t as well-honed as my memory made me believe. The Sopranos took its whole first season to really stake its claim and Breaking Bad, as great as that short first season was, hadn’t yet figured out the Jessie part of the equation. Those shows changed the world. Billions doesn’t suffer from first-season jitters. It’s cool and collected and with its confidence and swagger intact from the moment it begins. It’s a different show with different goals than those I mentioned before, but it has gotten so much right and has so few self-made obstacles to overcome that the future looks delicious.
The entire conceit of Billions doesn’t lend itself the longest life, at least with its two leading men intact. These two either have to destroy one another, switch sides, or partner up in the next few years or the fire will subside. The intensity of this show and its incendiary leading men is that the gears will grind down somewhat faster than a series built around more thinly spread material. There’s a reason the prime of a highly toned athlete is so short. So, whether Billions burns hot and bright for a short time or finds new characters and material to mine over the years remains to be seen, but the fact is that this first season joins Fargo, Orange is the New Black, and Better Call Saul as recent examples of high concept television projects that came out of the gate swinging and with a very clear understanding of itself from the jump.
This is not a show for everyone but for those who found The Big Short and Spotlight to be equally effective as the likes of The Revenant or The Hateful Eight if not more so, it’s a true gift. An intelligent and very acutely researched and written (read my interview with the creators) piece of electric drama, Billions arrived fully cooked and only looks to get better once season two is upon us.