The January 17 series premiere for "Billions," Showtime's hedge fund drama, garnered 2.99 million views, making it the most-viewed original series premiere in the cable network's history. Post-Enron, post-Bernie Madoff, post-subprime mortgage crisis, post-99%, post-flash trading, the American public is demonstrating unprecedented interest in the drama surrounding high finance and basically, how the sausage is made.
The success of "Billions" is a game-changer. Historically, tv has proven infertile ground for shows about finance. For years, audiences couldn't get enough television shows about doctors and lawyers. There were dozens. As for shows about that third profession your parents wanted you to go into – investment banking – there seemed to be neither supply nor demand. In 1996, one of the early forays into the genre, FOX's "Profit," was canceled after its first season. Ditto TNT's "Bull" (2000-2001). Both were critics' darlings.
But that was then, and this is now. The American public's newfound interest in finance dramas first became apparent in the film industry. Unlike the Michael Douglas vehicle "Wall Street" back in 1987, today's finance fictionalizations go into detail about the everyday execution of trades and the structuring of exotic financial products. Examples include "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013), "Margin Call" (2011), and HBO's "Too Big To Fail" (2011). This year's "The Big Short" attracted marquee actors, big box office receipts, and Oscar nods. Peculiar, since the latter film was about the labyrinthine world of mortgage-backed securities – the very instrument that was blamed for the Subprime Crisis.
"Billions", which airs its third episode this Sunday (10pm Eastern), demonstrates both how much and how little the world of banking has changed. Yes, the hedge fund CEO Bobby "Axe" Axelrod (Damian Lewis) wears a zipped sweatshirt instead of a suit. Yes, today's quants have the ear of the CEO, instead of being treated as back office nerds as in the 1990s. On the other hand, "Billions" shows that Wall Street (in this case, a Westport, CT-based hedge fund) retains a lot of holdovers from the pre-stochastic modeling days. The basic human motivations and insecurities are unchanged.
And it still really matters where you went to school. Axe has a chip on his shoulder about being a Hofstra grad from Yonkers; he disdainfully refers to one employee as "Princeton-Wharton." His nemesis, U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (the omnitalented Paul Giamatti), is an Ivy Leaguer from a monied family. So yeah, there is some resentment there. And not just because Rhoades fantasizes about prosecuting Axe for financial wrongdoing.
Also unchanged is the pride the bankers take in crass language: In one scene, an Axe compliance officer tells employees he wants the company's reputation to be "purer than the Virgin Mary before her first period." This is on a continuum with the 1980s Wall Street environment that Michael Lewis chronicled in his book "Liar's Poker". According to Lewis, the Salomon Brothers ethos in those days was that you had to wake up in the morning wanting to "bite the ass off a bear" and be a "Big Swinging Dick." The only real difference is that now, women delight in genital metaphors as much as their male counterparts do.
So far, the show hasn't ventured into the quantitative aspects of modern-day i-banking. For a hedge fund, Axe Capital doesn't seem to be doing a lot of hedging, other than occasionally throwing around the word "short." It's also kind of campy in its writing, acting and execution. One argument between Rhoades and a financial journalist, presumably meant to be a tense exchange of bons mots, ends up looking like the two men are going to either start laughing or making out any minute. And all the rich guys act like they're in the cast of "Goodfellas."
If the term "minstrel show" can be applied to a show that exaggeratedly stereotypes the antics rich white people, then that's basically what is going on here. Nonetheless, the triumph – and the timing – of "Billions" suggests that viewers want to believe that their bankers are screwing them.