Af­ter a decade-plus of ‘pres­tige’ tele­vi­sion, the medium has re­verted to its crass, ob­vi­ous and pan­der­ing worst. Which is also its best . . .

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - ED POWER -

Tele­vi­sion has never been so bad and this is ob­vi­ously a very good thing. You will re­call when tele­vi­sion was good – and how bad that made us all feel. Break­ing Bad, Mad Men, all those Nordic thrillers that have in the col­lec­tive mem­ory co­ag­u­lated into one dour, room-tem­per­a­ture blur of sub­ti­tles and low-hang­ing skies. How puffed-up and flavour­less they all were – pop­u­lar cul­ture’s an­swer to a kale smoothie fol­lowed by kale smoothie for dessert (with ex­tra kale on top).

Those days are over. Af­ter a decade-plus of “Pres­tige Tele­vi­sion”, the medium has re­verted to its crass, ob­vi­ous and pan­der­ing worst. Which is also its best. A case in point is Bil­lions, re­cently re­turned for a third sea­son on Sky At­lantic (the chan­nel where you’re al­ways vaguely dis­ap­pointed Game of Thrones isn’t about to come on).

Bil­lions, as its big­gest fans will tell you, is ut­terly, glo­ri­ously ter­ri­ble: hack­neyed and car­toon­ish with a plot that swerves like a eight-year-old driv­ing an SUV while shoot­ing for a high-score on Poké­mon Go. It stars Damian Lewis, the ac­tor with the worst Amer­i­can ac­cent on tele­vi­sion, as . . . an Amer­i­can.

Not just any Amer­i­can – but a ti­tan of New York fi­nance. Bobby Ax­el­rod may look like Ni­cholas Brody from Home­land (Lewis’s break-out role) if his red hair was di­alled up to full Evil Gin­ger – but he is, in fact, a Wall Street mas­ter of the uni­verse, pre­sid­ing over a hedge fund worth . . . bil­lions (prob­a­bly more, but you try pitching a TV drama called Gadzil­lions).

Bobby has a prob­lem – and not just that he’s try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate New York high fi­nance sad­dled with Lewis’s idea of an Amer­i­can ac­cent (imag­ine Jeremy Clark­son half-heart­edly im­per­son­at­ing a cow­boy. And then imag­ine the really rub­bish ver­sion of that).

He has a neme­sis – cru­sad­ing pub­lic pros­e­cu­tor/hu­man go­pher “Chuck” Rhoades jnr. Chuck is played by Paul Gia­matti and is es­sen­tially a Voltron-like assem­bly of all the slime-balls, sleaze-bags and sex­ual in­ad­e­quates the char­ac­ter ac­tor has ever por­trayed. Let’s called him the Sum of All Gia­mat­tis.

As the se­ries re­sumes, Ax­el­rod has been ex­iled from his own com­pany, Axe Cap­i­tal, leav­ing the busi­ness in the care of shaven-headed an­a­lyst Tay­lor (think Eleven from Stranger Things, all grown up and with the abil­ity to ma­nip­u­late cur­ren­cies rather than to give Wi­nona Ry­der the hee­bie-jee­bies).

Charm­less Chuck is, for his part, tak­ing his schem­ing against Bobby to next level ne­far­i­ous, hav­ing in­vei­gled a sym­pa­thetic judge into hearing the case against his mor­tal foe. All of this un­folds in the broad­est pos­si­ble terms, with char­ac­ters say­ing things like “those funds . . . will get hot as Far­rah Fawcett in ’76”.

There is also a cameo from Mark Cuban, owner of the Dal­las Mav­er­icks and an in­vestor on Shark Tank, the Amer­i­can ver­sion of

Dragon’s Den. Imag­ine how much bet­ter last sea­son’s Game of Thrones would have been if, in­stead of Ed Sheeran, its big celebrity walk-on had been the owner of the Dal­las Mav­er­icks and host of Shark Tank.

The point of a show such as Bil­lions is that it’s equal parts ter­ri­ble and ad­dic­tive (if it was a drug it would be called “cack co­caine”). In fact, the for­mer flows di­rectly from the lat­ter. No­body on screen is re­motely plau­si­ble – it says some­thing about the dizzy­ing heights of non­sense achieved that the most con­vinc­ing thing about Ax­el­rod is his Lewis-be­ing-Amer­i­can ac­cent.

That’s de­spite the fact that An­drew Ross Sorkin, au­thor of the best non-fic­tion book about the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis to have a di­nosaur on its cover, is a co-cre­ator. Maybe he un­der­stood that real-life fi­nan­cial whizzes are far too bor­ing to put on screen and so gave us some­thing win­ningly ou­tra­geous in­stead.

Bad tele­vi­sion, it is im­por­tant to un­der­stand, isn’t the same as cruddy, un­watch­able TV. Bil­lions il­lus­trates the dis­tinc­tion be­tween the two. It’s pre­pos­ter­ous and shouty – but moves quickly, is crammed with twists (each more im­plau­si­ble than the one be­fore) and is as ad­dic­tive as a bot­tom­less bowl of party snacks hosed down in monosodium glu­ta­mate.

A new dawn

Bil­lions is, not by co­in­ci­dence, also crit­i­cally ac­claimed and a rat­ings cham­pion. In that re­gard it em­bod­ies a new dawn for Bad TV – ban­ish­ing the un­for­tu­nate mem­ory of all those deathly dreary shows we spent 1999-2009 (roughly speak­ing) pre­tend­ing to like. Nor is it an out­lier. Con­sider Suits (Net­flix), in which Meghan Markle just about acts her way out of a pa­per bag as a plucky ju­nior at­tor­ney at a slick NYC law firm.

Suits isn’t clever, apart from the name (Suits re­fer­ring either to “law­suit” . . . or that thing with the jacket and tie you wear to court – I’ll sit back as your brain im­plodes). What it is, how­ever, is pre­pos­ter­ously more-ish. As with Bil­lions, the char­ac­ters are dashed out­lines rather than fleshed-out hu­man be­ings, the di­a­logue tran­scen­den­tally hokey. But golly, each 45-minute episode blazes by. It’s one of the shows that lit­er­ally lives up to the binge-view­ing cliche: by the end cred­its, you’re bloated, guilt-rid­den and crav­ing more.

The dawn of the new Bad TV era can be dated to House of Cards (Net­flix) in 2013. House of Cards came to us in the fancy duds of Pres­tige TV, with David Fincher pro­duc­ing and di­rect­ing early episodes, and Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright star­ring.

How­ever, the se­ries couldn’t hide its ter­rific crass­ness for long – in­deed, in the very first in­stal­ment, it cast aside its pre­ten­tious vest­ments and stood there, flap­ping in the breeze in full Bad TV glory. This was an­nounced in an early scene in which Kevin Spacey snapped the neck of a stricken dog as he mono­logued to cam­era in a syrupy Dix­ieland burr. It was cheesy, ex­ploita­tive, with panto cat­call lev­els of melo­drama. And it was ir­re­sistible.

If House of Cards her­alded the re­turn of Bad TV, it also surely has­tened the demise of Pres­tige pro­gram­ming. Twelve months later, HBO – home of The So­pra­nos, year zero for Pres­tige TV – de­buted The Knick, a vir­tu­oso por­trait of mega­lo­ma­nia and the forg­ing of mod­ern Amer­ica from art­house doyen Steven Soder­bergh (it screened on HBO sub­sidiary Cine­max).

With Clive Owen as a mav­er­ick sur­geon in 19th-cen­tury New York, The Knick was Pres­tige Tele­vi­sion on growth hor­mones. Ev­ery frame was to die for (lit­er­ally if you hap­pened to be one of Dr Thack­ery’s pa­tients), the sto­ry­lines were non-lin­ear, no­body was painted as any­thing other than mer­cu­rial and amoral.

This was Pres­tige TV on a platter and, af­ter two sea­sons, it was done – can­celled and un­mourned. Ap­par­ently mod­ern au­di­ences crave some­thing other than a vir­tu­oso ex­plo­ration of mega­lo­ma­nia and the forg­ing of mod­ern Amer­ica from art­house doyen Steven Soder­bergh. Damian Lewis and his Ter­ri­ble Amer­i­can Ac­cent pre­tend­ing to be a hedge-fund wizard for in­stance. As with all the the best guilty plea­sures on the small screen, Bil­lions may be of neg­li­gi­ble nutri­tional value but it’s an ab­so­lute caper to sit through – ir­refutable ev­i­dence that, to be good, some­times you have to be really, really bad.


Damian Lewis and his Ter­ri­ble Amer­i­can Ac­cent in Bil­lions.

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