TV Preview: Buying into Showtime’s new Wall Street drama, ‘Billions’

Between takes on the set of “Billions,” Damian Lewis is standing amid a sea of Bloomberg computer terminals singing Hall & Oates to no one in particular. “Because your kiss, your kiss, is on my list,” croons the actor, clad in jeans, Pumas and a gray buttondown.

But don’t let the breezy vibe fool you: In the drama, Lewis plays a cutthroat hedge fund manager and self-made billionaire named Bobby “Axe” Axelrod whose extraordinary track record arouses the suspicions of a combative U.S. attorney, Chuck Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti. Rhoades’ righteous zeal is tempered somewhat by a giant conflict of interest at home: His wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), just so happens to be the in-house shrink and performance coach at Axelrod’s firm, Axe Capital.

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The series, premiering Jan. 17 on Showtime and co-created by New York Times financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, arrives more than seven years after the financial crisis, at a time when anger at Wall Street remains a potent force in American culture, fueling campaigns for the White House (Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont) and Academy Awards (“The Big Short”).

Though it is set in a post-crash universe, “Billions” suggests that greed, ego and corruption are still alive and well in the financial industry. “Part of the goal of this show is to help spur conversation and debate around some of these larger issues of inequality,” Sorkin said, “around the 1% and the 99%.”

The idea for the series dates to the heady days of the housing bubble, circa 2007, when co-creators and show runners Brian Koppelman and David Levien began to gather material for a project about hedge-fund billionaires. The writers were eventually put in touch with Sorkin, who after wrapping production on “Too Big to Fail,” the HBO film adapted from his bestselling account of the 2008 crisis and ensuing bailout, had started to develop a show with a similar concept.

The appeal, Levien said, lay in the contradictions of fallible men often portrayed — by themselves and others — as wizards, oracles and visionaries. “We have always loved people who can put across some kind of notion that they have everything figured out that everybody buys into.”

In addition to co-writing the pilot, Sorkin provided script notes and introduced the cast and writing staff to power brokers in finance, politics and law. Showtime ordered “Billions” to series in early 2014 amid a brisk market for projects set in the financial world after the box office success of “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

What makes “Billions” so authentic, according to Sorkin, is its understanding of what drives the Bobby Axelrods of the world. “It’s often as much about the pride and the power and to some degree the freedom that comes with money, as it is the money itself.”

“BIllions” is familiar psychological terrain for Levien and Koppelman, whose screenwriting credits include “Rounders” and “Ocean’s Thirteen” — projects revolving around men with a taste for gambling and an inability to quit while they’re ahead.

“I’ve now spent years trying to unearth this. What does it mean to have billions of dollars? Why? Like at a hundred million, what’s left?” said Koppelman, illustrating the point with an example from his favorite show, “Mad Men.” “I loved seeing the business, how Peggy and Don did what they did, but why they did it was much more interesting.”

The show’s creators emphasize that it is not a polemic; instead, “Billions” consciously plays with the audience’s sympathies. “We wanted to have you leaning different ways. We hope that half the time you’ll be rooting for Chuck and half the time you’ll be rooting for Axe,” Koppelman said.

Axe bends the law, but he’s an unpretentious guy who’s risen from a working-class background. Chuck is an Ivy League graduate born into privilege. Both are alpha males motivated by a thirst for power.

“They set it up very carefully as this gladiatorial battle between a hedge-fund billionaire and a U.S. attorney,” said Lewis, who was lured back to Showtime two years after leaving “Homeland” by the ambition and timeliness of the material.

“Billions” is also an exploration of high-powered romantic partnerships. Wendy makes many times more than Chuck, and she does so by masterfully manipulating the egos of Axe’s (mostly male) traders. Axe’s wife, Lara (Malin Akerman), is an icy blond ferociously protective of family.

“We’re interested in marriages that have been going on for a while in heightened worlds,” said Levien, who lives in Greenwich, Conn., which is to hedge fund titans what Orange County is to reality stars. (The town’s residents include Steve Cohen, whose similarities to Lewis’ character — blue-collar roots, a penchant for modern art and gargantuan homes, insider trading allegations — do not seem entirely coincidental.)

Although the show is concerned with an elite segment of New York society foreign to most viewers, its subject — the relationship between the government and the financial industry — is something that affects the lives of every American, noted Koppelman. “It’s like asking fish if they have experience with whales. At some point, the thing comes and smacks you in the head whether you want to experience it or not.”



Where: Showtime

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA-L (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17 with an advisory for coarse language)