‘Are you threatening me?’ – ‘You’re fucking right I am.’
This is an example of the sumptuously awful dialogue that Billions (Showtime/Sky Atlantic) has offered up for the delight and derision of audiences everywhere. In this exchange the threatenee is a widow, the threatener is Lara Axelrod, wife of billionaire Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod, played by Malin Åkerman as a sort of trailer-trash Claire Underwood. And this being a programme about ‘alpha’ hedge-fund gangsters, there’s a lot of macho swearing – and in fairness, some of it is quite creative, but you can’t help thinking you’ve heard it all before. What you might not have heard before is a cascade of legal and financial jargon which, like a sci-fi film, usefully pads the script out to make up for the absence of plot.
But wait! This is unnecessary, it has a plot. Axelrod (Damien ‘Axed’ Lewis) is being investigated by relentless US Attorney, Chuck Rhoades, played by the master of this show’s universe, Paul Giamatti. A simple plot, as the best ones are, but fairly complex characters. They could’ve made Axelrod, to quote the show, ‘another rich asshole’, and, indeed, in many ways he is, but he’s also a family man and almost shrewd enough to go up against TVs slickest schemers, be they Underwoods or Lannisters. Thankfully, Rhoades is just as shrewd and not a ‘white knight’ crusader for justice, but a grasping manipulator with a taste for S&M (a kink which will, one assumes, come back to bite him, as it would anyone with political aspirations of a high altitude).
There is then a conundrum at hand: who do you root for? Career politician or fiscal thug? It’s intriguing that a show about two of societies most hateful archetypes is so very watchable, but then hatred is hardly the opposite of love.
Speaking of which, the most surprising thing about Billions is the lack of explicit sex and nudity. You’d think it’d be all hot wives and high-class hookers, but no there’s just a little pool sex, mild bondage and some flunky’s misdemeanors.
Why, then, I hear you ask, should you waste your time? Simple: for the chance to see a smug character played by Damien Lewis humiliated by a smug character played by Paul Giamatti, or vice versa depending on your preference. Not to mention the opportunity to brush up on your legalese.
Lady Dynamite was an intriguing proposition, Netflix have done well with comedies recently and this might’ve been a fresh and wild female-driven programme, like the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but, hélas, it was a stale affair with not a single joke landing unscathed, like the the second series of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. There is nothing new here and, take note all you ironists, pointing out that something has been done before, as Patton Oswalt warns Maria Bamford here re. doing ‘in show’ stand-up, only makes the audience agree and switch off.
Furthermore, we then start questioning the entire premise: Lady Dynamite is a show within a show, and everyone knows that The Larry Sanders Show pioneered this technique, but fewer people will be aware that the late Garry Shandling also pioneered the surreal take on this format – a take which Lady Dynamite aspires to – in an earlier eponymous project. So, close but no exploding cigar.
Actually, the snark about poor Kimmy was unfair. That comedy is still delightfully odd and chock-full of non sequiturs that make you do a double-take, but it’s hard to top Tina Fey’s burst of frenetic creativity in the first season. However, the unshakeable truth about UKS is that it’s tremendous cast will, nolens volens, always have you coming back for more nonsense.