Sometimes when you want Chinese food, you don't want good Chinese food. You want something that has the distinctive taste of Chinese food, but also that element of greasy perfection so common to fast food. You want something that tastes like it just came out of the fryer and got dropped onto a steaming bed of rice.
You want, in other words, good shitty Chinese food.
I don't want to detract from good shitty Chinese food. It's one of life's great pleasures, I've found. And you can apply this to other realms of life as well — especially to television.
I realize that it sounds like I'm talking about a guilty pleasure, but I'm not. A guilty pleasure is something you feel a little bad about enjoying. Good shitty anything is something that is ultimately trash, but really well-executed trash — and trash that hides its intentions beneath a glossy sheen of superficial quality.
Such a product is Showtime's newest drama, Billions. It's fundamentally empty but frequently entertaining — dumb but pretending to be smart. And sometimes that's all you want. Here's what's good, bad, and weird about TV's best shitty Chinese food of the moment.
Good: The plot is propulsive, and the actors make it sing
The whole reason to watch Billions is to watch Paul Giamatti, as US Attorney Chuck Rhoades, and Damian Lewis, as billionaire Bobby "Axe" Axelrod, snarl at each other, then launch long-distance strikes against each other. Chuck, tired of bringing down small-time white-collar criminals, wants a big fish, and Axe is one of the biggest fish of them all. If Chuck can bring down Axe, it will prove he's serious about stopping financial crime.
So if you want to watch Giamatti and Lewis growl in exasperation — well, you've come to the right place. Billions offers copious amounts of it. And it packs in several other strong performances, especially from Maggie Siff as Chuck's wife, Wendy, who works as an in-house therapist for Axe's team at his firm. Contrived? Yes. But as a chance to watch the oft-undervalued Siff tear into some material worthy of her talents, it's great.
There's plenty of storytelling here that feels complicated for the sake of being complicated — or that takes big leaps of character logic to arrive at certain proscribed ends. But for the most part, watching Billions will give you a well-acted, reasonable approximation of quality TV drama. And that's worth at least something.
Bad: It's not as smart as it thinks it is
Billions is the sort of show that congratulates you for being able to keep up with it. The characters might as well turn directly to camera to tell you how smart you are to be able to follow it. But this is not particularly necessary — the show constantly underlines every point it has to make in bold red pen.
There's a good reason for this. Ultimately, Billions is completely hollow. The show has nothing to say about economics or politics or human beings, beyond the idea that sometimes people are one thing in public and another thing in private. (Chuck and Wendy, for instance, enjoy BDSM, something the show never once engages with beyond thinking it's an edgy character trait.)
This is, perhaps, why the show working its characters into many contortions just to keep the plot moving forward isn't as risible as it could be. The plot is entertaining enough, and the characters are thin enough, that you don't really notice while watching. You can turn off your brain and veg out. That's probably not what Showtime was going for — since, after all, this show features respected financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin as one of its co-creators (along with screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien) — but it's the ultimate effect.
Good: It's solid lifestyle porn
Billions occasionally feints toward making you think about income inequality, or the dirty tricks the rich sometimes play to keep getting richer. But it mostly doesn't care, ultimately. Axe's life is presented as a wildly entertaining good time, and Axe is ultimately a pretty good person, outside of all of the horrible corruption that leaves thousands destitute. He doesn't cheat on his wife (a horribly wasted Malin Akerman), for instance!
But it's also easy to get lost in Axe's world. Neil Burger's direction of the pilot (which is available for free here) has a shimmering, gleamy feel to it, particularly his treatment of a gigantic mansion Axe buys as a beautiful, lit-up jewel sitting on the beach, acting almost as a homing beacon. Who wouldn't want to be a part of this life? Wouldn't you feel at least a little bad about disrupting it?
If the show is meant to have complexity, it's probably here. Axe is the bad guy, but he has lots of superficially good guy traits; Chuck is the good guy, but he always seems to be on the wrong side of most conflicts. And there's probably a version of that that could work.
But the show does too little to contrast their circumstances to really make this land. Chuck, too, lives in a nice, big house, if not as big as Axe's, and his life looks really comfortable.
So if Billions ultimately doesn't have much to say about the American financial system, at least it gives us some pretty places to look at.
Bad: The show is about 95 percent macho swagger
Well-executed macho swagger makes up a lot of good TV from the past 20 years. But that also means that it's harder to find a new spin on that sort of storytelling. The space is so cluttered with other shows that to find a new spot to start digging is all but impossible.
What makes this even worse in the case of Billions is that it hasn't cast particularly well for its many, many dick-measuring contests. When Axe leaps up on a desk and starts shouting to his employees, Wolf of Wall Street style, it feels unconvincing. Lewis is many things as an actor, but he's not a particularly great motivator. He's great at playing internal conflict, not so great at external. (It also happens to be when his American accent — Lewis is British — is at its least convincing.)
But none of this is as bad as poor David Costabile as Wags, one of Axe's closest confidantes. Costabile is probably best known for playing Gale, the good-hearted chemist who fell afoul of Walter White's schemes on Breaking Bad, and he's not particularly natural at playing a mustache-twirling villain, who has a literal mustache to twirl. Wags is by far the show's worst character — a cardboard cutout who's there to do Axe's bidding in one scene, then tempt him further to the dark side in another. I love Costabile, but he's kind of awful here.
Weird: The B-stories are frequently ridiculous
All you need to know about the disparity between what Billions would love to be and what it actually is can be found in episode four, when Axe goes on a trip with some friends to see Metallica in concert, then meets the woman who heads up the opening act, which appears to be an acoustic cover band of the hair metal group Ratt. Then he gets some advice from Metallica about dealing with stress.
It's every ridiculous "very special guest star" plot line from a terrible TV show, distilled down to its essence. But because it's performed by top-notch actors and directed with that beautiful gleam, you sort of don't care in the moment — and only start to really think about it once the scenes are over.
That's Billions in a nutshell. It's not as good as it wants to be, but it's still just propulsive and ridiculous enough to be entertaining. It's good shitty television, and that's something we all need in our lives.
Also weird: This is yet another Showtime show where the entire premise is build around bringing down Damian Lewis
After Homeland, you'd think the network would have learned how hard it is to stretch a story like that out for more than a season.
Billions debuts tonight on Showtime at 10 pm Eastern. You can watch the pilot right here, right now.