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12 May 2016

I’m enjoying Billions – but that doesn’t mean I understand what the characters are saying

No-one speaks plain English in Sky Atlantic's latest export, but with compelling characters – and a great set of eyebrows – it hardly seems to matter.

By Rachel Cooke

Sky Atlantic’s new American import, Billions (12 May, 9pm), is quite compelling, though I can’t for the life of me work out why, given that for moments at a time the characters might as well be talking in Latin for all I’m able to understand what they’re saying. In the alpha world of the hedge fund, in which the series is set, no one speaks plain English, not even the wives. It’s all “shorting” this and “day-long buy spike” that. People prefer “sib” to sibling and “comp” to compensation, and they run all their words together, flicking through them like so many dollar bills.

As a result, Damian Lewis’s Stakhanovite eyebrows are required to do even more work than usual: down for (phoney) kindness, and sharply up for menace. Sinisterly darkened by the make-up department (they’ve had a go at his lashes, too), he looks like an eagle owl in a hoodie and trainers, which is pretty neat, given that he seems to think of most people as mere mice, their tiny bones to be swallowed whole.

Lewis plays Bobby Axelrod, born on the wrong side of the tracks (well, Yonkers, I think), but also a financial genius who is now a billionaire. More amazingly, he is loved by The People. Many of his colleagues – “my family” – were killed in the 9/11 attacks (he was out at an appointment elsewhere), a tragedy of which he likes to remind the media by making it known that he supports all of his dead workmates’ children through college and donates ginormous sums to the New York fire service. He is crooked, of course: an insider dealer to top them all. But so far, his pizza-loving man-of-the-folks act has kept public resentment at bay. Does he, like Trump, have a Melania? No. Lara (Malin Akerman) is cut from the same cloth as he is: Irish family, many “sibs”, grudges held longer than a pearl fisher’s breath. You really wouldn’t want to fight her for the last Gucci bag in the Bergdorf Goodman sale.

So, here is hubris. And over here – camera pans to a bearded Paul Giamatti – is nemesis in the form of Chuck Rhoades, the local US attorney. He would like to get Axelrod, but he is also nervous. He doesn’t want to go in and fail, and there is also the tricky problem of his wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), a shrink who works for Axelrod, helping his team with all their issues, most of which pertain to their “mojos”. (Look, your mojo would be bad in shape if you worked for Axelrod.) She and Chuck, while maintaining a highly professional level of discretion when it comes to dinner-table chat, are close, bonded by their shared love of S&M. After a long day at the office, there is nothing they like better than to share a cigarette: she smokes it, he functions as the ashtray in which she stubs it out when she’s done. Should this sting, she makes full use of – how to put this? – the kind of natural antiseptic Bear Grylls might favour.

The women are interesting in this show: flinty, unyielding, shrewdly loyal. The acting is great all round, particularly Lewis and Giamatti; I can’t wait to see them slug it out. But the show feels a bit wonky in other respects. It belongs to another age, somehow. Hedge-fund managers – my source on this is good, I promise – are in trouble right now, very far from the Masters of the Universe they once seemed to be. And then there is the spectre of Trump.

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Seeing Billions against the backdrop of this crazy race to the White House, it’s hard to take Axelrod’s baddie status completely seriously. At the end of the first episode, goaded by Rhoades, he bought a flashy palace on Long Island, its downstairs loo (we haven’t seen it yet: I’m guessing) the same size as the Plaza’s Grand Ballroom. His enemies seem to think this a splurge too far, that The People Will Notice and Disapprove. But if disapproval in the matter of bling was a thing, we all know where the Republican Party would be right now, which is to say: not here.

The writers have muddied the waters, of course. Rhoades has his kink, and Axelrod his charity work. Still, though. This isn’t how it works any more. Right now, the so-called people are seemingly happy to place their trust in the richest, flashiest man on the platform. 

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This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump