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In 'Billions,' Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti are alpha males doing battle

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

For those who reportedly feel they are being edged out of center stage, their fingers pried from the steering wheel of this great nation, it's been a good week. First, the Oscar nominations were dominated by tales of man versus everything, and now Showtime offers "Billions," a near-orgiastic celebration of urban virility.

Fear not, beleaguered white men. Your version of the American dream remains the essential stuff of not just legend but also Oscar bait and lots of very good premium cable television.

Because "Billions" is very good television. How could it not be? Created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien ("Ocean's Thirteen") and Andrew Ross Sorkin ("Too Big to Fail"), it crackles with the self-confident repartee of those accustomed to high stakes and giddy heights delivered against backdrops that seem lifted from Esquire's "Interiors We Love" issue. (If there were such a thing. Which there should be.)

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More important, "Billions" pits Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod, a self-made billionaire, hedge-fund king and shark about town, against Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades, the equally ruthless if far less soignee attorney general who has sworn to have Axelrod's scalp.

To which "Axe" (why name a character Axelrod if he's not going to go by "Axe"?) replies: I double-dog dare you, dude.

Power and pride are not the only things around which "two of New York's most powerful titans" (it's right there, in the press kit, "powerful titans") circle. There's also a dame, because there's always a dame, only this time, thankfully, it's not what you think.

Chuck's wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), works for Axe, who apparently she's known for years. Many will remember Siff as "Mad Men's" Rachel Menken Katz, but as Wendy, her moments facing off with Axe, dealing with clients and performing a near-miracle by making her marriage seem believable are among the best of the series.

Wendy is not just one of Axe's high-flying traders, she's the in-house psychologist who deconstructs and then rebuilds those high-flying traders, including Axe, so they can go out there and pillage the economy.

Or whatever it is we think insider-traded hedge funds do these days, now that enough time has passed since Wall Street stole our economy so we can treat it as just another high-drama workplace, like a hospital or a fire station.

As Axe's wife, Lara, Malin Akerman also does a lot of scene stealing — though blond and beautiful, Lara is no social X-ray; she came from nothing and plays by street rules.

But the show's female power remains strictly behind the throne, Wendy's especially. She spends her days propping up the masters at both ends of the universe, and though it would be easy, and much more unexpected, to imagine a series that revolved around her character, "Billions" is not that show .

This story, like so many stories, is about two men attempting to ... well, since this is a family newspaper, we'll say dominate each other.

In an early episode, Axe uses the family's untrained dog to explain the importance of marking your territory. If that weren't obvious enough, the dog is then "fixed" into apparently permanent listlessness, prompting Axe to react with a little territory marking of his own. No one's going to "fix" ol' Axe, that's for sure.

Rhoades eventually has his own dog scene. It too is rather ridiculous for a variety of reasons, but the point is made: Men are animals, and the alpha will out.

To disguise this, a little, everyone in "Billions" is rich — Rhoades is the child of privilege and has the domineering father to prove it. Axe is Axe — which gives the entire production a Powerball winner tone. As with many cinematic depictions of wealth, the conspicuous consumption is just as hot, and sometimes hotter, than the sex. Which is also plentiful and, in the opening scene anyway, "shocking" (sorry, Showtime but "American Horror Story" has gotten most everywhere first).

Yet in almost every case, the sex is simply an extension of the show's main fetish: male-on-male power plays.

As these stories inevitably do, "Billions" emphasizes the notion that Axe and Rhoades are not as different as their jobs imply: They are just playing opposite sides of the same game. This "fine line" cheat is what allows viewers to align with the bad guy, which one is most certainly encouraged to do here. As is pointed out in a hilarious paean to "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," the audience never roots for the super-posse, they root for Butch and Sundance.

Lewis and Giamatti are two of the best actors working — no doubt they will soon be battling each other for an Emmy — and their presence together is great wealth of its own sort. Axe is one of Lewis' more voluble roles, but the actor maintains his power over stillness by allowing his character to say much while giving little away. Giamatti may splutter and spit a bit more, but he is just as menacing, albeit much more human.

They are surrounded by a fine supporting cast, including a Machiavellian David Costabile as Axe's consiglieore "Wags," Toby Leonard Moore as Rhoades' right-hand man and so many other white men in suits that it's often hard to keep track.

They all dance and throw punches in a script fast-paced and brimming with literate wit. If occasionally you stop to wonder why, exactly, Wendy doesn't quit her job, or when screenwriters will realize that the whole snorting coke off a woman's breasts has gotten very old, or what any of this means anyway, there's Axe pulling off another coup or Rhoades bringing the hammer down.

"Billions" isn't so much about titans as gladiators, and as in ancient Rome, male spectacle is the point.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Billions'

Where: Showtime

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with an advisory for coarse language)

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 16, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "In `Billions,' white alpha males do battle - Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti help make Showtime's new drama sizzle. - TELEVISON REVIEW" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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