Hit or Sh**: Showtime’s BILLIONS

In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.

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If you’re as worn out of Trump’s antics as we are, why not take some time away from politics to watch a fictional dick-swinging contest between multi-billionaires? From the creators of BOARDWALK EMPIRE comes BILLIONS, a showdown between a brilliant US Attorney Chuck Rhoades cracking down on financial corruption and an equally brilliant hedge fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod determined to stay on top. Anyone without a degree in finance may find themselves lost in a majority of the jargon, but deceptively good writing and complex character relationships set this drama up for potential success.

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I’m generally thankful for having seen THE BIG SHORT, but I was especially so while watching BILLIONS. Without Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining sub prime loans and CDOs to me, there’s no way in hell I would have understood one second of the first 20 minutes of this pilot. I appreciate the show’s confidence in my ability to understand finance and, admittedly, I was able to figure out the gist of what was going on by the end of the episode (when it really matters). On the other hand, the first section of this episode was so bogged down with financial jargon that it hardly felt like a pilot at all. Pilots should help us understand the world we’re entering, but this show tosses the viewer into the deep end and comes dangerously close to letting her drown.

Another card stacked against this pilot is the simple fact that it’s very difficult to feel sorry for billionaires. In one moment, we’re supposed to feel sad because a character has to sell her yacht. In the next, we’re condemning Bobby for his outlandish spending and rooting for Chuck to take him down. We’re supposed to be afraid that Bobby will lose his BILLIONS and go to prison, but when I’m watching this episode while eating a six-dollar dinner from Del Taco, I’m hard pressed to care.

billions would you buy me

Would you buy me? I’d buy me

Despite their off-putting riches, Bobby, Chuck, and especially Chuck’s wife Wendy are complicated characters with complex motivations and personalities. Wendy works as a therapist for the members of Bobby’s company, and as Bobby says, they “have been fighting back to back in the trenches” together for 15 years. Obviously, this is a conflict of interest in Chuck’s endeavor to smear Bobby all over the wall. Wendy fights to keep her job despite Chuck pressuring her to bail because she clearly likes Bobby and is passionate about her therapy work. Chuck is trying to protect his wife, but is really trying to forward his own interests. Bobby is trying to appease Wendy while protecting himself from Chuck by keeping her at the company. This is annoying in some ways because, apparently, the writers had the ability to explain complicated concepts all along and could have walked you through the first 20 minutes a little better, but good writing is good writing I suppose.

In fact, the writing improves dramatically in the second half. A jarring opening image of Chuck being peed on by a dominatrix actually pays off in a subtle and satisfying way at the end of the episode. Bobby admires a dog for peeing in the house to assert his dominance and later he makes a bold business move after seeing the same dog recovering from being fixed. Bobby pees on things while Chuck gets off on getting peed on. It’s very understated in a weird way, simultaneously subtle and obvious. And I never thought I would think this much about people and animals peeing on things, but let that be a testament to how well this is all set up.

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Overall, the writing is solid, but it’s probably not worth shelling out money for or bricking your computer with viruses trying to watch it some other way. It isn’t a very good pilot, but it has the potential to be a successful series if the complex relationships continue to develop to draw focus away from the onslaught of financial mumbo jumbo and build sympathy for otherwise unsympathetic characters. In other words, BILLIONS will probably be successful among people who can afford to pay for Showtime.

Verdict: Sh** Probation

BILLIONS airs on Sundays on Showtime

Kate Brogden is the Television Editor at Crossfader in addition to an aspiring screenwriter with a penchant for magical realism and romantic comedies. Her proudest achievement to date is getting a friend into Disneyland without a ticket.

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