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The most interesting thing about Billions is not necessarily how it delves into this new genre of television known as wealth-porn but how well it combines two strong acting leads. There was a time – like last year – when a TV show was carried by one big-name actor and a number of secondary figures.
Billions isn’t the first to break this mould – think of how the movie Heat finally juxtaposed acting heavyweights Robert de Niro and Al Pacino on screen – but it’s arguably the best of this new style of television.
Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis: two of the greatest actors of this generation
They are modern-day legal and financial adversaries, as the New York blue blood and district attorney Chuck Rhoades and the Queens poor-kid-done-good Bobby Axelrod. They represent polar opposites of not just social circumstance, but society and its preconceptions.
Rhoades comes from old money, Axe (as he’s called) made it all himself, somewhat questionably in the mayhem after 9/11. Both skirt across the line of the law; fuelled by their self-belief and not insubstantial egos. Both give superb performances and could easily carry the show alone.
The dynamic tension between them, and their respective characters’ motivations, pit the post-Great Recession conflicts excellently: the cavalier bankers/predatory investors against the law-upholding public servants. Just as you want to despise the one and admire the other, Billions introduces reasons to reverse your sentiments and judgements. It’s exceptional screen-writing and adept directing and acting.
Giamatti has had an illustrious career, and is best known for movies like Sideways, Cinderella Man (Oscar nomination), Barney’s Version (won a Golden Globe), The Illusionist, and San Andreas; as well as TV shows like John Adams (Golden Globe and Emmy winner) and cameos in Downton Abbey and 30 Rock. He’s even been the voice of Asterix. In art-imitates-life, his father was a Yale professor and the college’s president, and Giamatti studied there.
Lewis is arguably better known from his high-profile mainstream shows, after his brilliant debut in Band of Brothers and tortured role in Homeland (for which he won a Golden Globe and an Emmy). It’s not the first time he’s appeared onscreen as a wealthy man, having played a wrongly convicted cop in Life, who is released and paid $50-million for his incorrect imprisonment.
The rest of the cast: stand-out performances and delightful complexity
Giamatti and Lewis’s on-screen wives (Maggie Siff and Malin Akerman) give stand out performances in their own right. With delightful complexity, Siff is the psychologist at Lewis’s firm (“our spirit animal” he calls her at one point), therefore playing the role of the Shakespearean foil to both major characters (fitting given how much of the Bard’s work Lewis does in theatre).
Axe’s other foil is his right-hand man Wags (played by David Costabile) whose range of acting ability is confirmed by the vastly different roles he plays here and in Breaking Bad.
The introduction of Asia Kate Dillon in later seasons is another brilliant reflection of society right now. Dillon is, according to IMDB, the “first gender non-binary character shown on American television. Dillon identifies as non-binary and uses singular ‘they’ pronouns.” They previously starred in Orange Is the New Black.
Billions is as rich in acting talent and commentary of society as it is in trust-funded attorneys and wealthy investors. It’s excellent television.
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