Billions: Lawyer versus businessman, in living color

The Showtime weekly serial money drama Billions has a premise that diverges from the usual cable or broadcast TV fare: both sides of the cat-and-mouse equation are flawed.  And both sides are equally shrewd and game-worthy.

Emmy Award-winning Paul Giamatti plays the sclerotic, win-at-all-costs U.S. attorney G-man in search of crushing "Axe," the head-bending honcho of Axe Enterprises, played by the equally intense British actor/profucer Damien Lewis, so extraordinary in the early seasons of Homeland.

The shrewd, conniving, and insight-laden story hails, creator and brilliant wordsmith Andrew Ross Sorkin has stated, from true-life adversarial parallels.  The show marries always compelling high finance with deep legal and primate-level back-room stabbing with front-office gloved poison handshakes.

The characters are fully fleshed out, including the men and women in the investment house Axe runs and the auxiliary deputies under Giamatti, who has "never lost a case" against a hedge fund manager – is 81 to 0.  Until the brick wall of Bobby Axelrod, that is.

The protagonists reveal kinks of various sorts, some of the acronymic and alphabetic variety, evidencing few scruples in or out of the bedroom or dungeon.  For its part, the crackling dialogue is visceral and heavy on the scatology and R-rating elements.  There is also the occasional nude scene and the like.

Despite the even-steven distribution of signature Sorkin  (not to be confused with Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing)* snark and nark, of opportunism and hard-gloss predator/prey business "ethics," our bet is on Axe, as the more resourceful or calculatingly cool of the two chief antagonists in this opera buffa that compels watching.  Like an ice-cube chess or poker player, Lewis seems always three steps ahead of the competition.  He dispenses wisdom to underlings and androgynous office  like a modern-day Yoda without the verbal tics.

Rhoades's psychiatrist soon to be ex-wife, Wendy, played by Gimlet-eyed Maggie Siff, flourishes a commanding Lady Macbethian role in both halves of the action, as she masterminds and delineates how the characters can overcome their potentially ruinous "weaknesses" to succeed in the prey-eat-prey world these men and women occupy.  Both wives are a study in dominant, hyper-brainy take-no-prisoners ceiling breakers.

The Giamatti character is determined to maneuver down and humiliate or bust the elusive Axe character, sacrificing sanity and sense in his all-hands efforts at chicanery.  Axe's wife, Lara, an exceptional take by actor Malin Ackerman, as clever as she is beautiful, gives a run for the money in astute shrewdness matching her husband's.

Though characters on both sides of the ethics divide have children, the focus is unrelentingly on adults and their convoluted dystopian games and schemes.

Once upon a time, movies were where we went for excitement and suspense, down and dirty shenanigans, and chiaroscuran Machiavellian plots.  Now, as my brother once pointed out in defense of TV today, long-run series on the tube develop stunning story arcs and depth of field, bringing us back week after teeming week to these tarnished beings who speak more brilliantly than their counterparts in real life (IRL) would, but tipping us in on the undersides of how such men and women amass their fortunes – and their ashen or ebullient destinies.

The action is both cerebral and tactical, rewarding investment in the Sunday-night-hour commitment.  Season three is no drop-down disappointment in a scrambling, hothouse wild ride you can't turn away from, once you swallow the basics.

Worth a look-see for intensity, market thinking, behind-the-scenes Sargasso plot machinations.  Decades ago, this savage and subtle battle between antagonists in "law" versus "business" would have been adjudged too flinty for public consumption.  We have grown into this claw and talon scenario such that we don't automatically dismiss any of it as unlikely or farfetched.  Billions is likely, and very fetching.  It's even more a documented, scubbled mirror for our perilous times.

Billions is the tribute greed pays to faux hardball politesse.