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Showtime's Billions is driven by money in the bank performances from Giamatti, Lewis


Paul Giamatti & Damian Lewis square off in Billions. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 17th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Maggie Siff, Malin Akerman, Toby Leonard Moore, David Constabile, Condola Rashad
Produced by: Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Neil Burger, Amy Kaufman, Willie Reale

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Two bravura performances for the most part overcome the sometimes convoluted, other times confusing goings-on in Showtime’s Billions.

The 12-episode Season One, with half of it made available for review, pits a cutthroat, charismatic hedge fund emperor against a tightly wound, sexually kinky U.S. attorney bent on bringing him down as a crooked inside trader.

Damian Lewis (Homeland) and Paul Giamatti (John Adams) respectively play the roles of Bobby “Axe” Axelrod and Chuck Rhoades. Both breathe fire into these very willful characters, making Billions as bracingly intoxicating as the top shelf booze they favor and savor.

The complex, high-level financial manipulations don’t always go down so easily. Nor does an opening scene in which Rhoades is bound, gagged and at the mercy of a dominatrix who jabs a lit cigarette into his bare chest before urinating on the fresh wounds. Rhoades gets off -- and away we go. The identity of the woman is kept secret until the closing moments of an altogether rousing first episode.

Our “hero’s” full title is United States attorney for the southern district of New York. His jurisdiction includes Westport, Connecticut, where Axelrod sits astride the insanely prosperous Axe Capital. He drives his minions hard while also lavishly rewarding their loyalty. Heroic philanthropy covers his tracks, with Axelrod specializing in taking care of 9/11 families who lost loved ones on a day when Axe Capital itself was housed in one of the Twin Towers.

The go-between in all of this is Rhoades’ wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), who served as Axe Capital’s invaluable and very well-compensated in-house therapist long before her husband became a high-level federal prosecutor. She’s still very much in that capacity, presenting a glaring conflict of interest when Chuck Rhoades seeks to bag her boss with help from his meddling but ring-wise father (the recurring Jeffrey DeMunn).

Axelrod is thoroughly ruthless when required to be. But he’s also a faithful husband to Lara Axelrod (Malin Akerman) and a doting dad with their two young sons. It adds several layers of empathy to this character, who’s far jauntier and younger than real-life hedge fund despot Bernie Madoff (to be played in a Feb. 3-4 ABC miniseries by Richard Dreyfuss).

Rhoades and Axelrod are seldom seen in the same scene throughout the first six hours. But Episode 1 has a zinger of an encounter, with Axelrod sneering, “What’s the point of having f*%k you money if you never say f*%k you?“ Rhoades retorts, “They may be cheering now. But believe me, they are dying to boo.” It’s on.

The resultant cat-and-mouse gymnastics don’t always stick the landing. But the lead dogs of Billions are always on point, giving this drama its electricity even when the plot has occasional power outages. Episode 3’s delights include Rhoades’ reaming out a negligent dog owner and Axelrod’s zeroing in on Yum Time, which has compromised the quality of the treats he loved as a kid.

The marital sparks and flareups between Chuck and Wendy Rhoades are also a key ingredient. In Episode 2, Chuck proclaims, “I work for the public good.”

“No, you work for the good of Chuck Rhoades,” his wife counters. “Maybe sometimes they intersect.”

Chuck’s first lieutenant is hard-charging Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), who in Episode 6 boils Axelrod down to “nothing but a filthy money pig.”

Axelrod relies on fixer Mike “Wags” Wagner (David Constabile), who does the boss’s bidding while also feeling free to push back.

The head-spinning stock machinations in Episode 4, subtitled “Short Squeeze,” are offset by a spur-of-the-moment flight on Axelrod’s private plane to see Metallica’s only scheduled North American gig in Quebec City. Three of his longtime buddies join him. Only two will return on the same flight during an episode that tests both loyalty and fidelity.

Billions is full of itself in a good way, with Giamatti and Lewis dynamically leading the way while a solid supporting cast hangs in with them. The perplexities of stratospheric finance are not easily digested at times. But you’ll never be too far from another scene in which one or the other protagonist hits the spot and makes this latest Showtime series worth both your time and your money.


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