Ex­am­in­ing why we root for the rich and scan­dalous

Head­ing into the sec­ond sea­son, the writ­ers of Show­time’s ‘Bil­lions’ say they aren’t ed­i­to­ri­al­iz­ing on Don­ald Trump — but they know the type

The Washington Post Sunday - - DIVERSIONS - BY SCOTT TOBIAS style@wash­post.com

The first sea­son of Show­time’s “Bil­lions” ends with the show’s two larger-than-life ad­ver­saries stand­ing in the wreck­age they’ve made of their lives. When two ex­traor­di­nar­ily pow­er­ful men are pit­ted against each other, the doc­trine of “mu­tual as­sured de­struc­tion” is sup­posed to act as a de­ter­rent, pre­vent­ing them from con­sid­er­ing the nu­clear op­tion. And yet here they are — U.S. At­tor­ney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Gia­matti) and bil­lion­aire hedge fund man­ager Bobby “Axe” Ax­el­rod (Damian Lewis) — in the bomb crater of Axe Cap­i­tal, a once-sleek mon­u­ment to un­fet­tered cap­i­tal­ism, now re­duced to a rav­aged sales floor and wires hang­ing from the ceil­ing.

In his ef­fort to bring Axe to jus­tice for his re­lent­less abuse of the fi­nan­cial sys­tem, Chuck has dam­aged his rep­u­ta­tion and lost his mar­riage to Wendy (Mag­gie Siff), a cor­po­rate psy­chi­a­trist. In de­fend­ing his busi­ness, Axe has also dam­aged his rep­u­ta­tion and lost his re­la­tion­ship with Wendy, who hap­pened to serve as his in-house per­for­mance coach for 15 years. The key in­sight to “Bil­lions” — and a ma­jor source of the out­ra­geous week-to-week ex­cesses that make it so en­ter­tain­ing — is that Axe and Chuck will never stop fight­ing, no mat­ter how much dam­age they do to them­selves or the peo­ple they love. Their in­flated egos can­not be punc­tured by hu­mil­ity.

“Bil­lions” re­turns for a sec­ond sea­son Sun­day, to a world in which an­other New York bil­lion­aire, Don­ald Trump, has as­sumed the pres­i­dency. Though showrun­ners Brian Kop­pel­man and David Le­vien have in­cor­po­rated real-world de­vel­op­ments in their pre­vi­ous work — their 2009 film “The Girl­friend Ex­pe­ri­ence” is lay­ered with chat­ter about the Great Re­ces­sion — the name “Don­ald Trump” does not come up un­til the fourth episode. And even then, Kop­pel­man and Le­vien are not in­ter­ested in ed­i­to­ri­al­iz­ing. They just know the type.

“We don’t try to track the head­lines,” Le­vien said. “We try to es­tab­lish a ve­rac­ity in the be­hav­ior based on what we’ve seen. If there are events in the show that ac­tu­ally echo what’s go­ing on in cur­rent events, that’s usu­ally co­in­ci­den­tal. We just try to get to the essence of what makes these peo­ple cre­ate these events.”

“Part of what we wanted to do,” Kop­pel­man said, “was look at the true na­ture of ac­cess, in­flu­ence and the power of bil­lion­aires and high­level fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors. When you think about this un­fet­tered power and con­trol that bil­lion­aires can have — that ra­pa­cious need re­ally sets the bar. It’s a show about this out­sized am­bi­tion, the need to have what you want to have, and the abil­ity to get it, and whether that’s a good or bad thing.”

One of the most com­pelling as­pects of “Bil­lions” is that it is as much a re­flec­tion on how the pub­lic per­ceives the rich and pow­er­ful as it is a con­dem­na­tion of the rich and pow­er­ful. In the sec­ond sea­son, Christo­pher Den­ham joins the cast as Oliver Dake, a spe­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tor as­signed to ex­am­ine Chuck’s se­ri­ous eth­i­cal lapses and pros­e­cu­to­rial over­reach in his case against Axe — all of which we, the viewer, have wit­nessed, on top of the lies and be­trayal in his mar­riage. And yet it is Oliver who reads as the vil­lain in this sce­nario, not Chuck. That says some­thing about our at­trac­tion to charis­matic an­ti­heroes.

“From the be­gin­ning, we’ve wanted to play with al­le­giances and who peo­ple root for,” Le­vien says, “in the hope that peo­ple come to a re­al­iza­tion, like ‘Why am I root­ing against the guy who’s ac­tu­ally un­con­flicted and do­ing good?’ ”

For Kop­pel­man, one of the mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tors of the show is to un­der­stand how money and suc­cess for­give af­fronts to de­cency — a phe­nom­e­non that might ex­plain Trump but is cer­tainly not lim­ited to him.

“We’re re­ally in­ter­ested in fig­ur­ing out why peo­ple give a huge pass, some­times, to in­cred­i­bly suc­cess­ful peo­ple as long as these peo­ple are, in fact, suc­cess­ful,” he says. “We were and still are com­pelled to ex­am­ine why grab­bing power and in­flu­ence is a stand-in for be­ing a qual­ity per­son in the minds of many peo­ple.”

The sec­ond sea­son also in­tro­duces a unique chal­lenge to that power in Tay­lor Ma­son (Asia Kate Dil­lon), a gen­der non­con­form­ing char­ac­ter who starts as an in­tern at Axe Cap­i­tal and whose an­a­lyt­i­cal bril­liance proves an in­dis­pens­able as­set. Op­er­at­ing un­der the pro­nouns “they,” “theirs,” and “them,” rather than he-or-she bi­na­ries, Tay­lor shakes up a busi­ness cul­ture that’s hy­per­mas­cu­line and no­to­ri­ously re­sis­tant to change. But in an of­fice of­ten play­fully likened to a zoo, ten­sion over Tay­lor’s pres­ence is a cer­tainty.

“We wanted some­body as smart as Bobby Ax­el­rod in the room,” Kop­pel­man says. “As we started to think about the char­ac­ter, we re­al­ized that we had an op­por­tu­nity to in­tro­duce into Axe Cap­i­tal some­body who looks quite dif­fer­ent — who would cause peo­ple to, in a sup­posed mer­i­toc­racy, re­act in a cer­tain way. At the same time, we didn’t make it a mes­sage thing. We put this per­son into this world. They have these in­cred­i­ble skills. They also hap­pen to be gen­der non- bi­nary. We let that sit­u­a­tion play it­self out.”

For Kop­pel­man and Le­vien, “Bil­lions” con­tin­ues an al­most two-decade-long col­lab­o­ra­tion about the rogues in Amer­i­can cul­ture, those men and women who make their money play­ing the an­gles. This in­cludes the poker sharps of “Rounders” and “Run­ner Run­ner,” the thieves and casino brass of “Ocean’s Thir­teen,” the high-end pros­ti­tute in “The Girl­friend Ex­pe­ri­ence,” and Michael Dou­glas’s car sales­man in “Soli­tary Man.” “Bil­lions” deals with dirty deal­ers on a much larger scale, as the first-time showrun­ners have an ex­pan­sive ter­rain of 12-episode sea­sons. But they’ve ap­proached “Bil­lions” with the same jour­nal­is­tic rigor as their past projects, draw­ing on con­ver­sa­tions with hedge­fun­ders who, like their other char­ac­ters, ex­ist out­side the nor­mal chan­nels of so­ci­ety.

“We made stud­ies of how these peo­ple in these po­si­tions com­port them­selves,” Kop­pel­man says. “More than that, we thought about what was go­ing on in their in­ter­nal lives and the way peo­ple looked at them.”

“I don’t think the world has made liars out of us,” he adds. “Though our show is a lot fun­nier than Trump.”

Bil­lions (one hour) re­turns Sun­day at 10 p.m. on Show­time.

JEFF NEU­MANN/SHOW­TIME

ABOVE: Damian Lewis plays hedge fund man­ager Bobby “Axe” Ax­el­rod in Show­time’s “Bil­lions.” RIGHT: Showrun­ners Brian Kop­pel­man and David Le­vien speak at the TCA Win­ter Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 9. “We’re re­ally in­ter­ested in fig­ur­ing out why peo­ple give a huge pass, some­times, to in­cred­i­bly suc­cess­ful peo­ple as long as these peo­ple are, in fact, suc­cess­ful,” Kop­pel­man says.

ERIC CHARBONNEAU/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS INVISION FOR SHOW­TIME

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