Showtime tackles hedge fund power and wealth

January 12, 2016 09:00 AM

Showtime and financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin have teamed up for the new contemporary drama: “Billions,” which explores the power, wealth and egos of  the Wall Street elite. 

In its pilot episode, airing Jan. 17, the show offers a fascinating character study of two individuals with significant influence in the financial sector. 

Paul Giamatti (Sideways, John Adams) portrays Chuck Rhoades, a U.S. attorney with 81 straight convictions in financial crimes. 

Damian Lewis (Homeland) portrays Bobby Axelrod, a hedge fund manager with not only incredible wealth and a remarkable reputation for charity, but also a mansion of secrets to his success.

This is the second time that Giamatti has worked in a Sorkin production. A few years ago, he portrayed Ben Bernanke in the HBO adaptation of “Too big to fail,” Sorkin’s remarkably researched tell-all covering the duration and aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. 

In Sorkin’s fictional story, Giamatti portrays a conflicted, moral family man with his own secrets. No longer are Wall Street sheriffs satisfied with just leaving their socks on during sex. Rhoades is a sexual sadomasochist with an unusual remedy to alleviate his cigarette burns. But he’s also unwilling to sacrifice his principles in the pursuit of justice.

Giamatti’s character is complex. At times he’s spectacular, other times he’s playing an angry or affable version of the same character. Online commentators chuckle about his penchant for screaming at the camera, and Billions gives him a small window to bark at a rival Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) attorney in the first 20 minutes.

For a short period, viewers will see a snarky Giamatti they’ve seen in other films. His first few scenes of dialogue outline the power of hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod and the uphill battle he faces if he chooses to investigate him. As we learn that Axelrod is an extremely generous icon in the financial community and the sole survivor of his firm following the 9/11 attacks, it is soon revealed he may have a dark side. Three different traders accused of making suspicious trades on possible inside information have been linked to Axelrod’s firm. 

An ambitious SEC attorney demands that Rhoades investigate Axelrod, but the federal attorney faces two challenges. One, Axelrod is beloved and powerful – he’ll likely only get one shot at this investigation. Two, Rhoades’ wife Wendy (played by Maggie Siff) has worked as a trading psychologist at Axelrod’s shop for more than a decade.

Then, halfway through the show, something remarkable happens. 

During a very tense scene where Rhoades’ father lobbies for mercy for a family friend who has been convicted of insider trading, Giamatti shows his talent as he morphs into his character. Rhoades is a man on an island where he must make very difficult decisions that ultimately have serious and tragic consequences. 

After Rhoades must confront these consequences, “Billions” sucks an audience in and makes it one of the most intriguing shows to debut this winter. This is a highly watchable, entertaining character study of two men wrapped in an epic, modern day power struggle.

The beginnings of "Billions"

Andrew Ross Sorkin began developing Billions shortly after filming “Too Big to Fail.”
“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,” says Sorkin. “The goal was to create something that I hadn’t really seen on television before.”

After two years of toying with the idea and the characters, Sorkin sought additional collaborators. For this show, he was teamed up with Brian Koppelman and David Levien, best known for their writing of the films “Rounders,” “Ocean’s Thirteen,” and “Walking Tall.”

That collaboration helped him understand the importance and difficulty of creating multi-dimensional characters.

“The experience of ‘Too Big to Fail’ inspired me to want to try a hand in this world of television. It gave me a lot of perspective on the importance of characters,” he says. “The greatest lesson I learned was how to develop a character.”

Axelrod and Rhoades are extremely well developed by the end of the first episode, but there are also terrific moments where viewers are able to quickly understand the thoughts and motivations of secondary roles. There’s the new hedge fund analyst bragging to Axelrod that he went to Stanford and Wharton – only to have Axelrod, who went to Hofstra, explain how and why the analyst’s trading strategy is completely backward. 

There’s the ambitious financial journalist looking for his Pulitzer, the losing trader who simply won’t cut his losses and is eager to share news with his boss when he finally gets something right and the two analysts sparring over the certainty of their position, both unwilling to concede to the other’s argument. Viewers with a Wall Street background will smile and nod because they likely know a few people who carry these ambitions and traits.

But this is a show about Axelrod and Rhoades. Even though there are similar initials and sounds to Bobby Axelrod’s name with Pershing Square Capital head Bill Ackman, no one individual inspired the character. 

“That didn’t even hit me,” Sorkin says when asked about the similar initials. “Bobby Axelrod is his own character. He isn’t based on any one individual, but he shares a lot of qualities of lots of people in the hedge fund world.” 

Rhoades on the other hand is an amalgam of different attorneys that Sorkin covered as a journalist. 

“I was covering a lot of white collar crime and always watching the prosecutors. In this story, we wanted Chuck Rhoades to be this conflicted layered person; in real life they have conflicts that we appreciate and don’t know. They might not be the level of the conflict that he faces, but the idea is that he is different. His father was on Wall Street, and he knows the people he is prosecuting. Chuck also was born with money. Prosecutors often don’t come from money.”

Hedge fund boys and their toys

An important part of the plot that may lead to Rhoades investigating Axelrod is the hedge fund manager’s desire to purchase a $63 million mansion on Long Island, the ultimate trophy of his success.

Such trophies aren’t uncommon on Wall Street, where managers are always part of a unit-measuring contest, be it salary, net worth, or some “other” unit of size. Steve Cohen owns a Balloon Dog statue, Martin Shkreli just purchased an unreleased Wu-Tang Clan album worth $2 million. And David Tepper bought his former boss’s ex-wife’s $43 million mansion and tore it down to build a bigger one.

Bobby Axelrod wants this house, and he’s not afraid of the social repercussions.

“When you’re at that level, it’s really no longer about the money. The dollars themselves are no long relevant,” Sorkin says. “When you’re living the billionaire life, the dollars are no longer the scorecard. It’s much more about the power and pride—and freedom to do whatever you want that the money affords you.”

Sorkin says that watchdogs are always paying attention to the high-profile purchases. 

“On the other side—the public reaction to these types of purchases, where someone has done something flashy and people have put their heads above the cloud—a prosecutor looking to make a name might see an opportunity to investigate them,” he says. “That has happened.”

A second season?

Sorkin is hopeful that Showtime lets his team continue along this path. A second season of this show could work, but which path would it take? 

It could continue to focus on the work of Giamatti’s character, or it might take a similar approach to the hit FX vehicle “Fargo,” a show that finds remarkable success by changing time periods and storylines. From the 1929 crash to the years of Malkin’s junk bonds, from the 1987 crash to the Dot Com Bubble, there is no shortage of story lines when exploring the power and wealth of the Wall Street elite.

“Billions” also debuts at a time that the adaptation of “The Big Short” by Michael Lewis opens in theaters. The timing is interesting for both given that the 2016 Presidential campaign is in full swing and Wall Street will be a critical topic of debate.

“In the post-financial crisis, the country is more tapped into the issues of economics than ever before,” says Sorkin. “There’s a big debate taking place right now about inequality, the middle class and what it means to be the one percent, the power of these individuals of that level and to be a billionaire at this level.”

No doubt that “Billions” will have people talking. For trading junkies, it’s a binge-worthy series. The 12-episode season kicks off on Showtime Jan. 17.

About the Author

Garrett Baldwin is the Managing Editor of the Alpha Pages and the Features Editor of Modern Trader. An author and Baltimore native, he earned a BS in journalism from the Medill School at Northwestern University, an MA in Economic Policy (Security Studies) from The Johns Hopkins University, an MS in Agricultural Economics from Purdue University.