If you’re not watching the US drama because the words ‘hedge fund’ put you off, you’re missing out, says Camilla King.
I have to admit when the email from Sky landed in my inbox trumpeting the arrival of their latest hit series, Billions, about a hedge fund wunderkind going head to head with the US Attorney, I yawned and hit ‘delete’.
There was absolutely nothing in that programme description to entice me, and although I thoroughly enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street, I was also left with the distinct impression that both financial traders and ‘ludes were to be strenuously avoided.
Eventually, however, the promise of Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti lured me in and I was immediately hooked, watching the first two episodes back-to-back. The premise is this: Damian Lewis is Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod, a hedge fund manager from Brooklyn who has a gift for the stock market and who in the wake of 9/11, in which all his other business partners were tragically killed, made an absolute mint and is now a billionaire with the world of Wall Street at his feet.
He should be a loathsome arsehole, particularly as there are plenty of hints that his empire is built on insider trading and bribery. But here’s the thing, he’s actually a nice guy who pays his employees’ kids’ college funds, supports New York firefighters, loves his wife and two young boys and has a wicked sense of humour. His hard graft attitude and loyalty to those closest to him demand respect, even if his business practices are decidedly dodgy.
On the opposing side you have Chuck Rhoades (Giamatti), US Attorney, a polymath pitbull, determined to prove himself by tackling white-collar criminals (the cream of which would be Axe), in addition to the usual heroin dealers and obvious bad guys. He’s got daddy issues, thanks to his wealthy and domineering father, that have resulted in control issues for poor old Chuck, manifesting themselves in some pretty detailed BDSM scenes.
“Billions is a show that requires its audience to root for both sides and what I’m particularly enjoying is how, as Chuck seems to be unravelling, my admiration for Axe is growing, and I’d kind of like him to get away with it all.”
He also has professional daddy issues, due to his father’s insistence on starting his own campaign to bring down Axe, using the very stock market tactics which could signal the end for Axe, Chuck’s father, and Chuck himself, given his close personal involvement in the case.
Then there’s the matter of Chuck’s wife, Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), a stunning psychiatrist who’s been employed by Axe for over a decade. She acts as some kind of slightly bizarre life coach for Axe and his employees, helping them get their Alpha on before important deals go down. While she and Chuck don’t talk work at home (and frankly why would you when there are golden showers to be enjoyed), he can’t help trying to protect her from the inevitable fallout.
And so the scene is set for a battle of intellect and wiles which, without a stellar cast and writing that zips along with plenty of laughs, could be boring, but absolutely isn’t. Billions is a show that requires its audience to root for both sides and what I’m particularly enjoying is how, as Chuck seems to be unravelling, my admiration for Axe (and of course it helps that Damian Lewis is charisma personified) is growing, and I’d kind of like him to get away with it all. Damn you, weak moral compass!
I’ve seen some criticism levelled at Billions claiming that it’s kind of over the top, that the character signposts are a bit obvious (Axe is a humble man because he saved his childhood pizza parlour yada yada yada) and that it’s all terribly macho. Well, it’s true that this is not subtle telly – please do not tune in if you fancy a bit of Scandi noir.
It’s bold, it’s brassy; Billions is an EastEnders barmaid of a show. But, really, would anyone actually want to watch a dramatically accurate account of hedge fund management? I’m going to go with no on this one.
And as for the macho claim: well, the women are as ballsy as the men, and thank goodness for that. Lara, Axe’s wife (played by Malin Åkerman), comes from a similarly working-class background, and watching her navigate the shark-infested waters of wealthy New York society is a lesson in how to charm and threaten with a single dose of side-eye that I intend to practise in the bathroom mirror.
Billions airs on Sky Atlantic on Thursdays at 9pm.
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Freelancer in the arts. Unwilling expert on Batman, dinosaurs and poo (there are children) and running widow of @UpDownRunner. Lover of music, cake and lady stuff. @millking2301