Sunday, January 17, 2016

REVIEW: 'Billions' - Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod Prepare for Legal Battle in 'Pilot'

Showtime's Billions - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

A New York attorney gets an inside tip about a billionaire's insider trading. Although the case could make his career, his wife has ties to the billionaire.

It's a tad surprising how much of this first episode of Billions largely just boils down to a pissing contest between Paul Giamatti's Chuck Rhoades and Damian Lewis' Bobby Axelrod. So much of this opening hour is about the conflict between these two men. They are both well-established and connected in this community but are on opposing ends of the spectrum getting ready to face off with one another. Chuck is the U.S. Attorney with a perfect conviction record being tempted into going after his biggest target yet in Bobby. Meanwhile, Bobby is a billionaire who is seen very favorable by the public due to his charitable work. However, he's also covering up something mysterious and possibly shady as well. This is the main conflict for the show this season. It's uncertain how much narrative drive the story actually has. It's a show that can talk about the politics of Wall Street. It sounds very smart about the subject. It's a very timely show because these issues are a part of the current presidential election cycle. And yet, the show is more engaging to watch when it's much more personal to the characters and the conflict that's in store for them.

This isn't a great first episode. It's largely expositional and overly shows off its knowledge of the hedge fund and billionaire culture of Wall Street. But there also seems to be an acute awareness of the narrative structure of the show as well. The show knows that it's largely a pissing contest between the two leads. It even points that out in the middle of the premiere where Bobby gets to talk about his new dog marking his territory. That's basically what this show is as well. Bobby and Chuck are largely kept in their own corners of the narrative. They are gearing up for this fight with each other. But they only meet once - and that's a very combustive scene. It shows the animosity between the two and indicates that things are only going to get nastier as the season progresses. That's a promising start for a show that isn't completely there yet.

The show really isn't all that subtle about Chuck's insecurities either. He's very tough on the job. He's able to act swiftly at the most appropriate time. That's why he has such a perfect record. He's excited to flaunt how much success he is doing in this office. The subject of Wall Street is a sour subject for him though because it includes the two figures in his life who do control him and dwarf his accomplishments. Chuck needs to visit his father in order to scheme and be certain of his actions. His father isn't a great man. He was a part of a society that is now facing criminal convictions. A friend of his even commits suicide because he couldn't face spending time in jail after Chuck refuses to allow him to pay his way out of it. But it still shows a side of Chuck that likes to be dominated. That's dramaticized even further with the opening shot of the hour that features Chuck being hogtied and a mysterious woman putting a cigarette out on his chest and then peeing on him. It's a dynamic that Chuck enjoys which could complicate him as a character moving forward. It's just not really told or depicted in a way that is all that interesting.

Chuck is also personally conflicted in this case against Bobby because his wife, Wendy, works for Bobby's company as a therapist. She makes so much more money than he does. Even though Chuck is the U.S. Attorney, she's the true star and breadwinner of the family. The show tries to make that into a conflict and fails pretty spectacularly at it. That may be the point but it's a bit ambivalent at the moment. However, Wendy is a compelling character because of her relationships with both Chuck and Bobby. She's just as capable and perceptive as they are. She knows that something is up when Chuck is trying to manipulate her into leaving her job. She loves working for Bobby - even though she's a little unfulfilled talking to hedge fund managers all day long. She understands that environment and knows exactly how to motivate people to continue doing the best that they can do on this job. She's also keenly aware of how far Bobby has progressed since they started working together. It doesn't stop him from doing the actions that will later get him into trouble though. But she recognizes that he is much more perceptive than he used to be. She is as well. That's what makes her a compelling presence that hopefully won't be sidelined for the main match between Bobby and Chuck.

Meanwhile, Bobby has made a very successful life for himself. He has taken advantage of a horrifying situation - he was the only partner at this firm to survive the attack on 9/11. He has made a name for himself by providing for the families of his friends he lost that day. He is also a very smart businessman. He understands the people behind the numbers. He knows that that's how the story is being told. He teaches his associates how to be better at their jobs even though they went to much fancier schools than him. He's a billionaire with lots of fuck you money. And now, he's started to use some of that money just to find his own personal happiness - consequences be damned. That's what has him on Chuck's radar in the first place. Bobby doesn't think he's doing anything wrong. He's up to something though. Chuck is largely focused on the house that Bobby is thinking about buying and how that could turn the tides in this upcoming battle between the two. But Bobby is very concerned about any kind of investigation into his business. He recognizes when a former associate is trying to get him to talk about some illegal practice. He's smart enough not to get caught with whatever he is doing - even though he fully believes he's doing a completely right and legal thing.

This conflict will be able to be one of differing opinions on a big issue once the truth is known about what Bobby is up to. Right now, it's a lot of philosophizing on both sides. Both Bobby and Chuck have to be prepared to deal with whatever consequences this conflict will cause. Chuck already has to face the morality of forcing a man to commit suicide. But he largely uses it to motivate the rest of his office as they prepare for the biggest case they've tackled so far. Bobby is ready for whatever might come his way. He ultimate chooses to buy the house and enjoy it with his family because he doesn't want to live in fear over what this purchase may do to him. He is ready for a fight. The show is less certain but it should be interesting to see what happens next. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Brian Koppelman, David Levien & Andrew Ross Sorkin and directed by Neil Burger.
  • The show better not be suggesting that there is a reason why Bobby is the only person from his firm to have survived 9/11. That's not a story angle this show can remotely handle well.
  • Bobby's wife Lara also proves herself to be more than she appears. However, it's largely relegated to one scene. She threatens a woman who confronts Bobby during his big presentation of money to the kids of his former partners. It's fine but such a small showcase for Malin Akerman.
  • There are lots of recognizable faces in this show as well. It should be interesting to see how David Costabile figures into things. He's a close associate of Bobby's who is connected to some of the more mysterious elements.
  • Chuck has some capable associates as well in Toby Leonard Moore and Condola Rashad. In fact, they prove themselves to be a team that needs each other in order to succeed.