IR TV Review: BILLIONS – EPISODE 4 (“Opportunity Zone”) [Showtime-S5]

The idea of loyalty and expectation seem to intersperse in the ongoing direction of what it means to be ambitious in the current world of “Billions”. In episode 4, “The Opportunity Zone”, it takes into place what nostalgia is, what has come before it and how it adjusts into our decisions. With Axelrod (as played by Damian Lewis), he sees it more as a competition to be used as a poker chip (though he still wants to think that he is doing for a greater good). The reality is that he knows he is a monster. If he is just making the balance known for PR reasons, then he doesn’t belong as much in the game…or likely people will eventually see through his lies to bring him down. The only variable becomes unless their own well being is too integrated into it already. The point of reference in this episode is Axelrod’s own original home of Yonkers, New York. It is where he came from but it doesn’t gel now with who he is now (as much as he likes that story). What is interesting is to see him BS poetic where he can see the experiences he had but not relate to it anymore (even while pretending he does).

The question becomes again, as with other shows, is the character doing this for himself or eve remotely or partially for others. This idea is balanced into a subplot with an artist he has befriended and bankrolled (again seemingly for the competition). But it is actually his second-in- command (Maggie Siff) who deconstructs the artist in a way (in one of the episode’s best scenes. She manifests the artist to see what it is he s doing versus the actual end result through actual will of purpose. The metaphor of a pizza maker and how that business integrates to what we think we are deserving of and what we are capable of are two different questions that begin to be explored. This reflects also in Chuck Rhodes, Siff’s ex-husband, in his continuing path to bring down Axelrod. The interrelation of family in this instance shows an interesting dynamic as little gives and balancing of ego make for stronger forward momentum. These small victories show inherent human nature and who might likely win. The last shot, while initially meant to show redemption instead breeds discord, not outwardly but inwardly within the aggressor, and that is the kind that can rot power from within.


By Tim Wassberg

IR TV Review: BILLIONS – EPISODE 3 (“Beg, Bribe, Bully”) [Showtime-S5]

The Machiavellian approach to the notion of self is approximated in the ideas of what family is and what it is created to be. The 3rd episode of the 5th season of “Billions”: “Beg, Bribe & Bully” is an undeniable truth within that. The indelible aspect about this episode as compared to all the others so far this season has is that it has to do with personal worth and perspective. “Billions” sometimes has problems being subtle but that is just the nature of what the alphas of the series are. The ideal is about winning sure but it is about impact. Both Axelrod (played by Damian Lewis) and Chuck (played by Paul Giamatti) are seeing these ideas from different perspectives which sometimes need time to ferment. Axelrod’s has to do with his son who has the ambition of his father but perhaps not the exact ingredients to be like his dad. Yet he will try.

The question which is pointedly shown by of all people: Chuck’s ex-wife, whois 2nd in command for Axelrod, to Axelrod in confidence is telling. There are paths that these people take, however subtle…and every move creates a different divestment within the portfolio, both in financial and in human tallies, either to build it or break it down until there is nothing left. Some can be rebuilt. Some cannot. In Chuck’s case, it is reflected in his father who has a new family with severe backlash on his part. Granted with both of these guys, it comes out to personal representation and a case of self worth. But even in the case of Asia Kate Dillon’s fixer, there are some cases of doors which  she cannot control or necessarily walk through. She makes a decision in logic for the greater good at one point, but what necessarily is interesting and ambitious is that she herself cannot see everything no matter how intrinsically made for the world of numbers as she is.

The kicker is also the double take in the case of Wags who knows how to play the game but sometimes knows he can’t do it exactly like Axelrod. He is outflanked by his nemesis on many points. And yet when you see Axelrod on stage at one point addressing a university body after vapid negotiations got him into play, shadows of Gordon Gecko reach out for a different space. It is not so much a reflection of his own worth but what his son in many ways sees inside him. Beyond that an aspect of dinner and even Axelrod’s simple integration with an artist that is done for the principle as well as the glory creates an interesting diametric of what worth is. Is the metaphor about building or to destroy just to build again.


By Tim Wassberg

IR TV Review: BILLIONS – EPISODE 2 (“The Chris Rock Test”) [Showtime-S5]

“Billions” as an idiom is again possessed by the thought of one-upsmanship. The question becomes within that structure is what happens when pieces are slowly pulled out of the puzzle by fate. Human failure is mostly based on numbers but the variable which is the emotional contingent is the one that allows sometimes for true breakthroughs or failure. Axelrod (as played by Damian Lewis) thinks simply making chess moves can ultimately stack him on the board as winning. But that is not the only thing that keeps a person on top. Unfortunately and equivocally, it is possessed of a give and take mentality. Episode 2 entitled “The Chris Rock Test” invariably relates to the champagne room but not in a way one would expect of high rollers. In attending a symposium by his enemy billionaire (played by Corey Stoll), Axelrod plays right into those hands.

Having been at many of these kinds of power symposiums myself it is as much about perception as it is perspective. Most people on the level can see through the aspect of power plays but the question is making it subtle or overt enough that it either feels too melodramatic or idiosyncratic to be true. Elon Musk is a good example of this and yet the Dragon craft will hit its crewed landmark shot and still capture a certain perception of the public. Add the recent Tom Cruise spectacle as part of an action movie shot in space and there becomes another. “Billions” works on that same concept but there is the human dimension.

Both of Axelrod’s right hand people who are sharks suffer a set back both because of unnecessarily comforting emotion of losing to an adversary they either didn’t expect or didn’t think would rear its ugly head. The question to be learned is coming to terms with that perspective. Chuck (play by Paul Giamatti) understands the balance. His interaction with a therapist allows him greater range even though his wife who heads up Axelrod’s firm is defragmenting part of his consciousness. This is why a sly interrelation with a would-be judge (played with slicing texture by Rob Morrow ) is undeniable. The possibility of Fleischmann from “Northern Exposure” is always a reminder just underneath. The balance that ultimately plays though in this episode is the aspect between redeemer and monster when both can be primarily the same thing.


By Tim Wassberg

IR TV Review: BILLIONS – EPISODE 1 (“The New Decas”) [Showtime-S5]

The preternatural distinctiveness of alphas in many ways is never knowing when a game is won, even when the losses stack up in response. This is a lesson that “Wolf Of Wall Street” tried to show. Too much is never enough but even building back again is its own relevance. With thr start of the 5th season of “Billions”, the two perceived enemies in Chuck Rhodes (Paul Giamatti) & Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) still understand the tit-for-tat relevance while understanding that the actual chase in many ways is the joy of the game. Unlike say “Suits”, “Billions” operates at a higher keel where success and ambition give way to lessons of loss of humility. Are people simply acting one way to get what they want or to satisfy an ideal.

Wendy Rhodes (played by Maggie Siff) and Taylor Mason (played by Asia Kate Dillon) revels in the same way though in different conjectures. The men want to play until the game explodes. The women want to get the prize and keep building. Taylor is an interesting structure because she understands the complexities of both and yet (like with Vulcan philosophy) needs a way to channel her anger while she is gunning for her best deal. The idea of what is right and wrong don’t necessarily come into play. The episode, the first of Season 5, is entitled “The New Decas” describing those who have joined the 10 billion dollar club. But as the new episode begins there is an idea of what is beyond that. And like the godlike personification that Axelrod pulls, the toppling of a kingdom depends on which way the leadership leads.


By Tim Wassberg

IR Print Interview: Paul Giamatti For “Billions” [Showtime S3 – TCA Winter Press Tour 2018]

Paul Giamatti is a man of many talents, able to traverse a variety of characters from his compassionate wine companion in “Sideways”, his sublime performance in “The Iceman Cometh” on Broadway and his more visceral performances in films like “Shoot ‘Em Up” and “The Hangover, Part II”. After sitting on a panel with his fellow actors as well as the showrunners discussing their 3rd season of Showtime’s “Billions” at the 2018 Showtime TCA Winter Press Day, Giamatti spoke to The Inside Reel about modulation of energy, likability and the quandary that is. U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhodes.

Can you talk about the modulation of energy within the performance because you have to go to such highs, such lows, and then the quiet moments versus the more intense ones?

PG: Yeah. [Rhodes is] kind of a manic-depressive personality. He’s kind of bipolar. I don’t know. I mean it’s good writing that helps you modulate that. I hope it modulates. I try to modulate it, but I don’t know. That’s just the character.

I mean it is a physical thing that it comes out emotionally?

PG: Sure. You’re just adjusting your energy. You’ve kind of got a map that tells you where you’re supposed to go and you just follow that plan.

Have your feelings about your character changed since you started playing him?

PG: There are actually [things] I like more about him as it’s gone along even as reprehensible as he’s gotten. I liked how clever he was last season, and he continues to be, although he’s very menaced by a lot of things going on. I actually have come to like him a lot more. I just find him more — he’s more fun to play. I mean, in my personal opinion, he’s a psychopath. They all are though on this show. Nobody particularly comes off very well. And this is actually interesting in this season because stuff that happens with the Clancy Brown character elicits some of the residual good stuff that’s still in there about [Rhodes] that reminds him of, “Oh, right. I do love the law and I do love administering justice properly when it needs to be administered.” That begins to come out of him a little bit too.

What was the biggest challenge prepping for the big collision scene at the end of Season Two?

PG: We didn’t have a whole lot of time. It is funny that that happens to me when — it’s very hard. Actors will always tell you laughing is very hard to do on camera. I actually am okay at it. The bigger problem I have is that once I start, I can’t stop (laughing). So that actually became the trickier thing in shooting that was getting me to stop laughing eventually so we could shoot anything. But we probably did two or three takes of it.

Can you talk about the idea of ambition within? Because you were saying it’s not about the money with this character, it’s almost more about the power. Can you talk about that?

PG: Yeah. I mean it is. It’s more about subtler things about power and stuff with him than even the money. He doesn’t care about the money, you know? And he is deeply ambitious. He’s hugely ambitious. This governor thing, but that becomes complicated in this season too, about what does he really want to do. And again, it comes to that [idea] where he starts thinking about, “Well, wait a minute. I actually have a pretty good job, and I actually can do good things here.”

Does it have to do with playing the heart of the matter? You have to play him as human, obviously.

PG: Yeah. He has a conscience. He’s got more of a conscience than you normally would think he has. These guys play at — it’s always ping-ponging back and forth. I will get the script and be like, “Wow. This is genuinely horrible. This guy’s horrible again,” and then like the next script I’ll be like, “Oh. Actually, he’s not so bad again.” So I never really know where the hell he is. He has more of a conscience, and his father really has none. There’s a huge conflict between the two of them.

And within the zeigeist there is that whole father/son aspect playing at the top echelon of US Government right now. Can you talk about the perception about what expectation means? It can be Greek. It can be mythic. Can you talk about that with those greater themes as it reflects in today’s society?

PG: Yeah. That’s true. Well, for sure. All of those things are a part of it. All those kinds of massive themes are [there] — but also dominance, and all that kind of stuff. It’s weirdly being acted out on the world stage.

But is there stuff that you sort of cling onto about him? Is it just that the wants of the father including into the wants of the son?

PG: For sure. The more interesting stuff is stuff about the father. It’s what’s being said and what’s not said, and also the way in which they’re wrestling and the father’s holding him down. All of that gets very shifty and interesting.

By Tim Wassberg

Content Diversity & Character Importance: The 2018 Showtime TCA Winter Press Tour

Diversity of content and of character has always been of paramount importance with the Showtime structure which is definitively reflected in their highlights for their Winter TCA presentations.

Our Cartoon President This animated romp from Stephen Colbert balances from his main gig on “The Late Show” but he speaks to the inherent challenges of both endeavors. The first has to do with the constantly changing aspects of the Trump administration: “Many a day [at The Late Show] at 5:15…no shit…we have to throw out 10 minutes of monologue.” But that said he says the approach for the animation is an interesting one: “[It is] the relationships you imagine they have animated. I think Michael Wolff [in his book] stole all 10 of our episodes…and we just guessed. We treat this series like a documentary crew came into The White House.” The irony of the current political climate shows how fluid the changes can be. Colbert explains: “In a pinch, tomorrow’s show could have a cold open on how Trump is a very stable genius.” (laughing) But he is quick to point out that Trump’s behavior shouldn’t be considered normal: “I don’t think we are complimenting him by making a cartoon out of him. I don’t think there is anything normal about his behavior. While we are doing comedy, we remind [the audience] that this is the kind of behavior you don’t want in The White House.” Despite this, Colbert realizes the comic potential: “The great benefit comedically is how uncontrolled his communication with the world is. However I love my country more than I love a good joke. He does it so often that you always have fresh material. I don’t want to hang out with him but he is the President of the United States. I go out to ‘The Late Show’ audience every night and we have this shared catharsis to laugh at. It is not jokes about what he did. It is character comedy.” Colbert also speaks to the difference in tone with his former home: “The Colbert Report”: “It is totally different vibe. ‘The Late Show’ is easier than the old gig. This guy is very different. We give our opinion on what they have heard today. But it is important that I don’t break news to my audience. It is about sharing the audience’s experiences back to them with my ideas. I am their buddy. My job is to talk about the policy the audience is already worried about.

Billions This show continues to be a Machiavellian mediation on the notion of power but also the ambition and overuse of its influence. Brian Koppelman, co-creator of the show with David Levien with whom he also wrote “Ocean’s 13” & Rounders speaks on the elements of power and control: “It is about privlidge, It is about people that don’t have to. It is simply [dictated by] the societal region. [The other aspect] is about kings who want even more. We have long been fascinated about ambition which sometimes stands in for true character.” Damian Lewis, who plays eccentric billionaire Bobby Axelrod, speaks to the characters’ focal point: “A dramatic device that is being used here is about [the accumulation] of desire and want. We enjoy watching the desperation and ambiguity in these lives. In terms of these guys [in perspective of] the real world, they do good things and they do bad things. I think trajectory of any kind for an actor is interesting. People go down in this show but they come back up pretty quick. I think that buoyancy is why it is so fun to watch.

The Chi The aspect of ambition from humble beginnings resonates in Lena Waite’s tale of Chicago’s urban neighborhoods but for her it is about maintaining authenticity: “Our big thing is that I want to make [sure] people can trust us. We are making sure the actors get the lingo and the swag [right]. [Whether it is] rollerskating, block parties…there are very complex [aspects] about the city…very layered. I started with the characters first and I named them with people from my life so you always have people that you care about.” Common, who exec produces the show and is also a Chicago native, talks about the texture of hope but also reality: “Joy is finding a bright place even when it is tough. Our city is unique but it resembles other inner cities in America. As Lena says, Chicago’s roots come from the South. Our history is thick. [And] the fact that Lena wrote this is valuable. She doesn’t have to talk about anybody about what is like to be a black person. The dynamic and depth of those things has to be told by us. We have to show people of color as colorful. I like it because it is fresh. We are not fitting into any stereotype. When we talk about black life, we just part of this pie too. And part of that is having relationships with other nationalities.” Waite adds to this point describes the intricacies of the details and the relationships between the characters: “My whole house looked like ‘True Detective’ when I was figuring it out. That way I had a road map to where I wanted to go.

Patrick Melrose The essence of addiction and excess plays into the texture of this character within a privileged world but also the effect of mental illness. Made popular by a series of novels by Edward St. Aubyn, Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the title character in a 5-part limited series. Cumberbatch, speaking via satellite from Atlanta, comments on the texture of the character: “Relevance is always won by the universal truth in a story. If told, any story that is as mammoth in its spokes as this, goes beyond beyond analysis of class critique. We need to reminded about the damage that can be done to innocence.” Cumberbatch then speaks on the different layers within the character: “Paranoid schizophrenia rears its head and this is when [Patrick] is in the throws of drug addiction. These voices don’t just emulate from inside of him. Patrick is someone who has a great deal of tenderness but is a damaged human being. It is very different to play a character whose chaos is manifested all the time. The real goal is achieving truth but not to heighten yet still keep true to character. I’d always go home at the end of the day thinking ‘Did I do enough or too much.’ But then the very definition of externalizing emotions is role playing them inside a hotel on your own.

By Tim Wassberg