Billions: The Best TV Show About Finance Since… Well, Ever?
I’ve barely watched any TV in the past 6 months.
Between work, a crazy travel schedule, and my steadily increasing interactions with carbon-based life forms, TV fell off my priority list.
But when a relevant show comes out, I’m always up for watching; I can even count it as “work.”
This month, that show is Billions on Showtime, which details the rise and possible fall of a prominent hedge-fund manager, Bobby Axelrod (played by Damian Lewis from Homeland).
I’ve watched the first few episodes.
And you should immediately start watching if you haven’t already – here’s why:
How Do You Judge a Show About the Finance Industry?
I judge TV shows, movies, and books in a simple way: how much do I want to keep watching or reading?
A big part of my enjoyment comes from the characters, which are more important than intricate or “clever” stories (sorry, Memento).
If the characters are interesting or likeable, I’ll keep watching even if there are plot holes, production issues, or other problems.
And if I don’t care about the characters at all, I’ll stop after Episode 1, right before that annoying auto-play feature on Netflix kicks in.
I have a second criterion for finance-related shows and movies: am I learning anything new?
Or at least, does the show successfully capture the flavor of the industry?
Billions succeeds in both areas, but more so with the atmosphere than the characters.
Wait, Have There Been Any Good Finance TV Shows?
No, not really.
There have been plenty of solid movies – the original Wall Street, Margin Call, Trading Places, Arbitrage, and so on – but TV showrunners have stayed away.
The closest has been another Showtime show: House of Lies, about management consultants.
The first season was “OK,” but I didn’t care about any of the characters, so I stopped watching.
And… oh yeah, it was about consultants, so I stopped watching.
Then there was our own Cost of Capital, but you can’t put an independent, shoe-string-budget web series in the same category as a studio-backed TV show with a multimillion-dollar budget.
So just by offering a well-produced, high-budget show about the finance industry, Billions stands out.
The Story Itself
The show was created by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders), and Andrew Ross Sorkin, of Dealbook and Too Big to Fail fame.
It’s almost like a dramatized version of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s fight against Steve Cohen and SAC Capital: hedge-fund titan gets accused of insider trading, and a government official with a chip on his shoulder goes after the titan tooth and nail.
The “twist” is that the hedge-fund manager, Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis), is well-liked by the public: he was the only surviving Partner of his firm after 9/11, and he has made huge donations to noble causes.
Even more surprisingly, he went to a non-target school!
At one point, a new hire from “Stanford and Wharton” presents a trade idea to Bobby.
Bobby shoots down his idea in 5 seconds and explains why it’s actually another trader tricking him, as he walks away with a smug look.
A co-worker then reveals that Bobby went to Hofstra.
“Oh,” says Stanford/Wharton in response, dumbfounded.
Meanwhile, an up-and-coming U.S. Attorney, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), feels pressured to take out a bigger target – he’s had a perfect track record so far, but all his convictions have been for smaller fish.
And, of course, his wife happens to work for Axelrod’s hedge fund as its in-house psychiatrist and “performance coach.”
The story gets going when Axelrod decides to spend $63 million on a waterfront mansion; Rhoades figures such a purchase will turn the public against him and make it easier to get a conviction, so he opens a case against him.
From there, the show becomes a twisty investigative drama with conflicts of interest, betrayal, and even government agencies (the SEC and Justice Department) facing off against each other.
Dramatis Personae: Actors and Acting
You might remember Damian Lewis from Homeland, where he played Nicholas Brody, a U.S. marine-turned-terrorist turned…
…OK, never mind, let’s just pretend the show ended with season 1:
I was a bit skeptical that Damian Lewis could pull off a hedge-fund manager role, but he captures the mindset and mannerisms well, and even talks about trade ideas convincingly.
I’m less fond of Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades; he does a respectable job, but his performance feels more similar to law-enforcement roles we’ve seen in other movies and shows.
In a bold move, there’s also a strong female role: Rhoades’ wife Wendy, the psychiatrist and performance coach at Axe’s hedge fund (played by Maggie Siff).
She adds the touch of humanity that’s often missing in money-related movies and TV shows.
Through her, we learn that even elite traders are human: they also have psychological breakdowns, insecurities, and mental barriers to hurdle over.
The Characters, the Characters, the Characters…
No character is “boring,” but no one is particularly sympathetic, either.
The anti-hero thing is in vogue after shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad pulled it off so well, but even when the show stars one or two anti-heroes, they must still be partially sympathetic.
In Breaking Bad, for example, Walter White killed people, approved the murder of a child, and destroyed his family’s lives…
…but at first, you felt some sympathy for him because he was dirt poor, suddenly got diagnosed with lung cancer, and had a son with cerebral palsy.
In Billions, neither lead is sympathetic: Axe is making billions from illegal information and doesn’t seem to care about anyone, and Rhoades is annoying, yells too much, and comes from a wealthy background.
Why should we care much about either one? I’m not sure.
So the stakes are unclear, and we don’t have a character to pull us into this world.
It might have been smarter to include or focus on an “everyman” character, but hey, I’m not a real writer – I just play one on the Internet.
Directing, Editing, Cinematography, Music, and More
The show is well-produced and well-directed, though nothing stands out as particularly amazing in the first few episodes.
Most of the shots are fairly standard for office drama-type shows, so you shouldn’t go in expecting Sergio Leone-style visuals.
It’s very dialogue-heavy, and not much effort has gone into coming up with unique visuals to convey the information – though there are some creative sequences throughout.
My favorite occurs when two traders present a “high-conviction” trade idea to Axe, and we learn in a flashback sequence exactly what this means: they bribed several company employees to gain access to a warehouse to check inventory levels.
The music consists of contemporary songs that fit the situations quite well; the soundtrack doesn’t elevate the series, but it works well enough.
Overall, it’s about on par with other good cable TV dramas in these departments.
Your Greatest Strength
The two best parts of the show are:
- Maggie Siff’s role as the psychiatrist and performance coach at the hedge fund – we’ve never seen a character quite like this one, but many real-life funds do employ professionals in similar roles.
- The atmosphere it captures – few other shows/films have gotten the “feel” of the financial world correct. The Wolf of Wall Street was too over-the-top, Margin Call was too plodding, and our own Cost of Capital was too depressing.
I think the show might have been stronger if it had instead focused on Maggie Siff’s character, joining Axe’s hedge fund as the performance coach.
There could still be a background story about a lawyer and hedge-fund manager wanting to kill each other, but this way we’d spend most of our time with the most sympathetic character.
Not everything in the show is accurate, but it captures the feel of hedge-fund professionals quite well: everything from the scorn shown to non-target schools to fleeces and loafers to Axe’s meditation habits.
Your Greatest Weakness
The biggest problem is what I mentioned above: that the two leads are not sympathetic, and so we don’t feel too invested in the conflict.
Another issue is that the show, so far, seems a bit predictable: the psychiatrist will have to choose between her husband (the US attorney) and her boss, the hedge-fund magnate.
And the attorney will have to sacrifice his morals and become one of the bad guys just to catch “the bad guy.”
But I’ll reserve judgement on this one until the series ends – the setup has been predictable, but surprises could always come into play.
Some reviewers complained about the simile-ridden dialogue; I didn’t mind it too much, but that’s probably because I’ve gotten used to it in finance/law-related shows.
Will You Learn About Hedge Funds by Watching This?
The show is more accurate than other series and films set in this world, and you can see evidence of the writers’ research in the dialogue and various trade/investment scenarios:
- “I am not uncertain” – A line stated by one trader to Axe when he pitches an idea backed by inside information on a company – this is a common way to “tip off” someone without directly stating where the information came from.
- “Decoy trades” – A new hire is convinced there’s a good long opportunity at one point, but Axe explains how it’s a setup by another investor to spike a stock’s price up with rumors of a false merger… and then make money when it declines as the rumor dies.
- Partner/PM Meeting – In the second episode, the PMs all sit around contributing long/short ideas after being prompted by the Axe’s right-hand man. This type of meeting may not happen literally in real life, but the scene captures the constant pressure everyone is under to generate alpha – especially anyone who starts their own hedge fund.
- The Compliance Department – In the second episode, Axe starts a new compliance department after a fake “SEC raid” to test his employees. It’s exaggerated, but it does capture the fact that compliance is a big concern for funds.
The series hasn’t (yet) gone into detail about the actual process of making investment recommendations or coming up with new ideas – but that’s quite boring to show on screen.
Also, it seems like Axe has an absurd amount of power for a hedge-fund manager: one character tells the story of a junior employee who quit, bad-mouthed Axe in another interview, and then had his offer rescinded when word got back to Axe… and was then “blacklisted” at all the major banks.
I could see that happening at one firm or group if the PM has a good relationship, but no single manager has enough power to “blacklist” a candidate everywhere.
So if you keep in mind that it’s a TV show and not a documentary or a financial modeling tutorial, you can learn a lot about the environment and the people you encounter at hedge funds.
Just don’t expect to get your next great stock pitch from Billions.
If you haven’t already started watching Billions, get to it.
It’s not a perfect show; don’t go in expecting to see Breaking Bad or The Wire or Fargo.
Instead, expect a series that gives you a good feel for the world of hedge funds, and that has some interesting characters – and even one sort-of-sympathetic one.
You’ll be interested in seeing how things play out and what happens next, even if you’re not emotionally invested in the lead characters.
And who knows, maybe if you really get inspired, you’ll follow in Axe’s footsteps and rise from nothing to become a billionaire hedge-fund manager.
As long as you’ve gone to Hofstra, that is.
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