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Review: 'Billions' Premieres On Showtime


Now to our TV critic Eric Deggans, who says we are about to see TV's best fictional series about Wall Street in a very long time. It's "Billions," and the drama premieres Sunday on Showtime.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: When U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades is mulling how to go after hedge fund billionaire Bobby Axelrod, he doesn't talk to his assistant about wonky details or corporate profits or losses. He talks about boxing.


PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) Bobby Axelrod is Mike Tyson in his prime. And you do not want Mike Tyson in his prime. Since my appointment, this office is undefeated in financial prosecutions - 81 and 0. And that's because I know when the time is right.

TOBY LEONARD MOORE: (As Bryan Connerty) I get it, but - this would be a big one.

DEGGANS: A big one, indeed. Axelrod, played by "Homeland" alum Damian Lewis, is a billionaire who gives $100 million to New York City firefighters and funds scholarships to kids of colleagues who died in the 9/11 attacks. But he's also suspected of using insider information to keep his profits high. And as the pressure grows, Axelrod tells a staff psychologist what it's like to be a person whose net worth is big as some nation-states'.


DAMIAN LEWIS: (As Bobby Axelrod) You know, being a billionaire, I never get to talk about this with anyone. But being a billionaire, when you walk into a room, it's like being a woman with great legs. You know exactly what everyone's looking at. You know exactly what they want.

DEGGANS: This is how Showtime's "Billions" succeeds where other Wall Street dramas have failed. Viewers are shown a complicated world where decisions often turn on ego, political posturing and personal insecurities. New York Times reporter and columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin helped develop the series after his book about the financial crash, "Too Big To Fail," became an HBO movie. He says the show uses fictional characters who aren't based on real-life people to give a detailed picture of that world. As an example, Sorkin cites a scene where Axelrod explains to his children why the family dog sometimes urinates on the furniture.


LEWIS: (As Bobby Axelrod) Boys, boys, look, look - look at this. Look, look. He's marking his territory.

MALIN AKERMAN: (As Lara Axelrod) He's peeing on the furniture.

LEWIS: (As Bobby Axelrod) Yeah, yeah, but he's showing Ryan who's boss. That's why it's called a pissing contest when two men try and stake out their turf.

AKERMAN: (As Lara Axelrod) I don't love it when men do that either.

ANDREW ROSS SORKIN: You know, he's sitting there with his kids, trying to teach them something. And especially these guys with money, one of their greatest struggles is actually how to deal with their kids. And so it's trying to capture those little moments.

DEGGANS: Despite these human moments, "Billions" doesn't try to make you love these characters. Rhoades is merciless in the name of justice, and Axelrod cultivates a corporate culture in his firm centered on macho guys and profane posturing. When these two finally meet, it's the ultimate example of two predators circling each other - Axelrod, the self-made man, against Rhoades, the child of old money. Here, Axelrod gets a warning from the prosecutor that buying a $63 million house will force authorities to look hard at his business.


GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) Kids in my office thought you might buy that house.

LEWIS: (As Bobby Axelrod) I'll probably pass. It's so nice though, you know? Your daddy's got a little place out there. He must let you use a bedroom some weekends if you say please.

GIAMATTI: (As Chuck Rhoades) You're the only one running the big money they cheer for. They may be cheering now, but believe me, they are dying to boo.

DEGGANS: There're big issues at the edges of this story - income inequality, profiteering from 9/11, the way big financial types often pay big fines to avoid jail for wrongdoing. But "Billions" excels most at painting a compelling portrait of how powerful men - and the women behind them - move the world. And the idea that many of their decisions center on such small human details is both a compelling and a frightening notion. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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