"Billions" (which premiered on Showtime on January 17) stars Paul Giamatti as a high-profile U.S. attorney with an 81-consecutive conviction streak, while Damien Lewis plays Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, a revered hedge fund manager. The sole survivor of his firm after the attacks on September 11, 2001, Axelrod has rebuilt his firm into one of the industry’s most successful. How he achieved this success, however, is the question of SEC lawyers who have discovered unusual trading patterns at firms linked to his hedge fund. (For more, read "Billions": Subprime Crisis Created Viewer Demand.)
How the Show Got Made
"Billions" is a fictional jaunt into the dynamic world of hedge fund finance, and ignites interest in the recent financial crisis. It was created by financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin and the writers of “Rounders,” Brian Koppelman and David Levien.
If the name Andrew Ross Sorkin sounds familiar, it’s because he is the author of “Too Big to Fail,” the definitive tell-all book about the 2008 financial crisis.
Sorkin’s book was adapted into a film of the same name and released by HBO in 2011. Following the release of that film, Sorkin sought to create a fictional television show in a territory often ignored by Hollywood: Finance.
“After the HBO version of ‘Too Big to Fail,’ I thought we could try to explore the power structure that is the financial world in a nuanced and elevated way,” Sorkin told Modern Trader. “The goal was to create something that I hadn’t really seen on television before.”
A Battle Between Power and Wealth
The show centers on a power struggle between two sharply developed characters.
Giamatti’s character Chuck Rhoades is a conflicted, moral man. While he is in service to his wife’s dominatrix tendencies, he is also serving the public as a successful Wall Street sheriff. With 81 straight convictions under his belt, he picks his battles against financial titans carefully, but offers no leniency, even to those he has known his entire life.
At one point, Rhoades is confronted by his father and asked to step in on behalf of a family friend who has been convicted of insider trading. The decision leads to fatal consequences for the convicted, as Rhoades must confront the weight of his legal power on Wall Street.
According to a recent interview by Modern Trader with creator Sorkin, Chuck Rhoades’ is based on a number of different attorneys that he witnessed over the years as a journalist covering white collar crime.
One can see many elements of former New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, who prosecuted many white collar cases in the wake of the dot-com crash, and current U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, who once won 85 straight convictions on insider trading cases. (For more read, Top 3 Most Scandalous Insider Trading Debacles.)
Hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod, meanwhile, is not based on any single Wall Street hedge fund manager.
Damien Lewis, the actor playing Axelrod, said that he read hedge fund manager David Einhorn’s book, Fooling Some of the People All of the Time, to prepare for the role. And though character Bobby Axelrod has similar initials to activist investor and Pershing Square Capital founder Bill Ackman, this is mere coincidence.
“Bobby Axelrod is his own character,” Sorkin said in the same interview. “He isn’t based on any one individual, but he shares a lot of qualities of lots of people in the hedge fund world.”
Axelrod is also a complex character. Perhaps most striking about him is that despite all of his wealth, his marriage, and two sons, Axelrod seems alone – only able to discuss his personal issues and motivations with his company’s trading psychologist, a woman who happens to be Chuck Rhoades’ wife. Although he has been highly careful about his trades and a few illicit ways that certain analysts access market information, the decision to purchase an $63 million mansion is a break from his cautious approach that has made him a billionaire today.
When Rhoades advises him to not purchase the mansion, it simply makes Axelrod want to by the property even more.
The final push comes when Axelrod sees his family pet whimpering on the ground after it has been neutered and wearing a protective cone – there’s an obvious metaphor here. He allows his ego to overtake him. It appears that the decision to make such a high-profile purchase may set him up for failure later in this season.
That purchase is the launching point of an investigation of his firm’s activities and the conclusion of the first episode.
The Bottom Line
Showtime’s Billions is a unique character study that pits political power against extreme wealth in the world of hedge fund finance and government oversight. The show will run ten episodes in the coming months and is set up to generate significant buzz as the 2008 financial crisis generates viewer interest. (For related reading, see "Investopedia's Guide to Watching Billions")