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Why You Should Invest Your Time in Showtime's Billions

It's a fun, over-the-top thrillride

Adam Bryant

There are several ways to describe the appeal of Showtime's new drama Billions, but co-creator and executive producer Brian Koppelman distills it thusly: "Badass actors doing badass things."

Indeed, the highlight of the series, which follows a battle of wills between a hedge fund king and the man trying to bring him down, is the ensemble cast. At the top of the heap, Paul Giamatti stars as U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, who becomes increasingly obsessed with nailing Damian Lewis' Bobby Axelrod, a self-made billionaire whose success involves more than just being really lucky playing the stock market.

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"For years, we've been interested in hedge fund guys, and how these people walk around like nation states," Koppelman, who created the show with his writing partner David Levien and esteemed New York Times financial columnist and Too Big to Fail author Andrew Ross Sorkin, tells TVGuide.com. "They have this tremendous amount of access, influence and power [that's] kind of unchecked in certain ways. And then we started learning about U.S. attorneys and the power they have. Different from D.A.s, they have tremendous amount of discretion in what they go after. In the fallout from the financial crisis, there were very few prosecutions of institutions that America feels were culpable. Why is that? What would make somebody prosecute or not prosecute? That's a question we're really fascinated by."

It's a question that Chuck wrestles with, if for no other reason than his fear of going after a big fish and losing. Adding complexity to the chase, however, is the fact that Chuck himself comes from money and has an ego that often forces him to protect his own position of power. "We don't want it to be simple," Koppelman says. "It'd be easy to make it a blue-collar guy chasing a rich hedge fund guy." Adds Levien: "We're fascinated by guys who have the ability and skill set to earn a lot of money and choose not to for a long period of time by serving in various government roles. [These are] guys who could be making tens of millions of dollars as a lawyer, but instead they making $150,000 and saying it's in the interest of the public good. The idea of a guy like that who comes from money and has a complicated relationship with money was interesting to us."
As we first learned on Homeland, Lewis is particularly adept at playing the maybe bad guy. And even though we're told that Bobby is corrupting the system, don't be surprised if you find yourself rooting for him, even if you can't relate to what it's like to have billions of dollars.

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"We don't spend a lot of time on likability and being sympathetic," Koppelman says. "We try to find characters who are fascinating, and we find people lock into characters who have a goal that they're chasing and who are special in some way and can somehow harness their resources in service of their goal. If you make the goal really specific, and if you make what they're harnessing really interesting, they then become relatable. Not for the typical reasons of, 'Oh that character's just like me,' but for a deeper reason like, 'That character is willing to do the thing I secretly wish I could.' Perhaps it echoes something more primal in people that they wish could access."
Then again, "Axe," as he's affectionately called by his peers, may not necessarily be the villain of the show, even though his character is used to explore the excesses of Wall Street types. "At some point they're going to have to take a moral view of this world," "Lewis says. "Does money corrupt? Is it possible to make that much money without straying across the line occasionally? How can you use your money to do good, or are you only in it for self-interest? These are questions we'd quite like to know about some of the richest people in the world out there. I hope the show explores that a little bit, but you're also going to need an element of cat and mouse. And I think who's the cat and who the mouse is going to change. Chuck will be shown to be equally ambitious and ruthless when he needs to be."
Watching these titans battle it out is tremendous fun, even if at times it veers a little over the top. However, the show is careful to show both men in their respective worlds, which, again, is filled with top-notch cast members. Assistant prosecutors Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) and Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad) support Chuck on his quest for Axe's head, while Axe leans on right-hand man Mike "Wags" Wagner (David Costabile) and his wife Lara (Malin Akerman) to weather the storm of the prosecution. "We're as interested in how they manage their own fiefdoms as we are in the interplay between one another," Koppelman says. "We hope that people are engaged with each world."

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But the show's secret weapon is a character that has a foot in both worlds. Sons of Anarchy standout Maggie Siff plays Chuck's wife Wendy, but she just so happens to work for Bobby at Axe Capital, a firm that she helped build as an in-house performance coach who motivates the analysts to do their job. And between the two leads' exercises in dick-measuring, she's a breath of fresh air. "She was in every part of the script, in terms of being in both worlds, and not just serving a function as somebody's wife, somebody's girlfriend," Siff says of why she wanted to play the role. "It felt bigger and more complex than roles usually are for women."
Even more evidence of the character's strength? Despite being caught between the two most important men in her life, she remarkably has the fortitude to not be forced to choose sides (for now). "Her identity and her sense of who she is and where she belongs is enormous through the season," Koppelman says. "It's a big part of the first season's journey."

As for the audience, the creators are curious to see which side the audience chooses in that cat-and-mouse game Lewis speaks of. "They're both cats," Levien jokes. "We were hoping to break up the usual feeling of choose your side and stick with it. We were envisioning it as a much more entertaining ride if you found yourself switching your allegiances at various times for various reasons." Adds Koppelman: "By the end of the season, the battle lines have been re-drawn in a way that makes it clear how it can go forward."

While Billions might not be Showtime's next prestige drama, it is a propulsive thriller with high enough stakes to lure viewers from one episode to the next. And even though it's sure to entertain, the show is also bit of a character study that asks questions about those in power and how they wield it. In other words, badass actors doing badass things.
"The people who are at the forefront of the financial industry and the people at the forefront of dispensing justice by choosing what cases they go after - it does affect everybody's life," Levien says. "In an abstract way, it's a look into some of the big forces that are actually shaping our lives. ... We felt the audience would very quickly get with the world of the show. We didn't view this first season as much as an introduction. For us, it was more of a reckoning for the characters and the choices that they'd made before and where they were going to end up because of those choices."
Billions premieres Sunday at 10/9c on Showtime.

(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS, Showtime's parent company.)