In Which We Short The Long Gain And Make Billions

The Evolutionary Spirit

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Billions
creators Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin

The current U.S. Attorney in New York has an amazing story. Preet Bharara was born in India to a Sikh father and Hindu mother. He grew up in New Jersey with an outstanding sense of moral purpose and total lack of fear. His record prosecuting Wall Street only recently suffering a few setbacks. His story is entirely unlike the narrative told in Billions, a new series airing on Showtime, but I mean who cares if reality says a white man from a rich Long Island family isn’t the most powerful and important lawyer in New York City. Let’s cast Paul Giamatti.

Bharara’s brother sold his diaper company to Amazon for half a billion and his mother called Sanjay Gupta’s mother to gloat. These are still privileged people but since the story doesn’t fit in to the tremendous whitewashing evident on Billions, it’s besides the point.

Bobby Axelrod (Homeland‘s Damian Lewis) is up to something. He manages a hedge fund where most of the staff died on 9/11. He replaced them with younger, cheaper talent. It is intimated that he may have had foreknowledge of the attacks, since he was out of his office that day. In the first scene Billions shows between Giamatti and Lewis, both are screaming at each other in faux New York accents, “Fuck you!”

Is this how people think New Yorkers actually behave? The Sopranos disgusted Camille Paglia, because it was nothing like the tri-state area Italians that she knew. Adam McKay attempted a more down-to-earth (I can’t say realistic) version of the movement of billions of dollars that surrounded the popping of the real estate bubble. Steve Carell was very good in The Big Short, which was not really about movers and shakers, but just people baffled by the state America was in.

The Big Short did not really make that much money at the box office. I recommend watching it, but honestly there is not a whole lot there. It’s a bunch of witty repartee pasted over what is generally a dull story. The movie is so soft on the Wall Street bailout it practically repudiates its own message. You get the sense that Michael Lewis, and maybe even a lot of the people in the movie who shorted the real estate market, did not really understand the financial industry either. Lewis’ protagonists come across as naive hypocrites. Did they think they were working for Habitat for Humanity?

I can’t decide if Billions actually means to be taken seriously. It opens with Giamatti’s wife (a deliriously opaque Maggie Siff) smacking her husband around and putting out a cigarette on his chest. Neither parent gives two shits about their children, which means it is very hard to sympathize with them. Giamatti is better at a character capable of self-deprecation; this blunt, conniving know-it-all does not particularly suit him and the show’s writing turns him into a foul-mouthed missile.

You actually find yourself rooting instead for Axelrod. Despite the fact that he employs Giamatti’s wife at his company as a staff psychologist, the attorney general still wants to “take him down” — on what evidence and for what reasons we have no earthly idea. Axelrod at least transcends the fuck-you New Yawk caricature with which he is saddled.

In order to avoid litigation, Axelrod employs many people working around the clock in his interest. Billions has cast a bunch of famous character actors to surround its two stars. Taken as a group, their presence is entirely distracting, since not a single one of them is playing against type. You have the secret service agent from House of Cards, the manager of the prison in Oz, Malin Akerman, The Yellow King, Kingpin’s assistant, Gale from Breaking Bad. That is just to start, and it makes Billions feel like a collection of cameos rather than intense performances.

The financial talk in Billions is about a hundred times worse. This side of the story is all made up, so it is impossible to suspend our disbelief that any of it is important. Besides, Damian Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod character already has more money than entire nations. There is nothing that could happen to him that would make a similar person blink an eye, so what are we watching this show for?

The frustrating thing is that there is a story to be told about the highest levels. Preet Bharara and the president who appointed him both have completely different motivations than any of the people on Billions. There must be a psychology of a hedge fund manager that is worth exploring, too, but existing as it is you are on the silly side of Wall Street, Billions is basically nothing more than a Manhattan telenovela.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

“Wishes” – Keith Zariello (mp3)

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