Finance is a tricky subject to cover dramatically. Not only is it difficult for laypeople to understand, the exciting things that happen – losing huge amounts of money, gaining huge amounts of money – happen on screens.
The fallback way to dramatize it, then, has been to focus on the characters – namely the egos – that manage this money and all of the things that they choose to buy with it. The best of these characters — Gordan Gekko, Jordan Belfort and Sherman McCoy – are so delightful and seductive to watch that we aren’t completely concerned with what exactly they’re doing.
To its credit, “Billions,” which aired its second episode on Showtime last night, pays more than just lip service to its subject matter. The dialogue is chock-full of jargon (most likely courtesy of Andrew Ross Sorkin, who is a screenwriter), giving those working on Wall Street plenty to nerd out about the way “The West Wing” once did for those who work in politics.
Without a finance background, you will find a lot of the dialogue on “Billions” whizzing right over your head, but that’s not a terrible thing. On the one hand, with the gluttony of legal and medical shows on television, it is almost a relief to see someone talking about derivatives. And also because our very ignorance on the subject matter – and our inclination to yawn whenever anyone starts talking about shorting stocks – is a pretty clear indicator for how these guys are able to get away with all that they do. We don’t understand all of their evil behavior, and we don’t care enough to find out – until, of course, it’s too late.
The problem that “Billions” has is that the characters who display this evil behavior are, unsurprisingly, all very rich, white men. And at this time in television history, we seriously have to ask ourselves whether arrogant men trying to best each other is really something worth exploring anymore.
On this week’s episode, Axelrod and his subordinate Victor (whom Axelrod fires for being insubordinate), both suffer from past wounds that they now use their money to fix at least temporarily. Victor sent everyone who ever made fun of him “a photo of my first million-dollar bonus check”; Axelrod stiffs a family that once cheated him when he was a struggling and poor teenager.
“That made you feel really good for about 24 hours and then you hated yourself for ever letting them know they ever got to you,” Wendy tells Victor. This type of insight is not wrong, but I have to ask if it is in any way interesting. Is there anything left to say about sad rich men?
The male ego has been on television many times before: the holy trifecta of anti-hero shows–“The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Mad Men” — all covered the theme and did it far better than “Billions” probably ever will. Those great shows have all ended, and with them, I had hoped, so did writers’ obsession with difficult, angry and arrogant men. There are other types of people and characters out there and they deserve our consideration and our attention too.
“Billions” should remember that going forward, because, more than anything else, it would certainly make the show stand out.