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John Doyle: Billions is fun, but fatally pretentious, male nonsense

There's a smell that emanates from Billions (The Movie Network, Crave TV, on-demand) and it is the smell of pretentious nonsense. A very male-centric nonsense.

We're now several episodes into Billions and it hasn't improved much from the obviousness of the pilot. It's about big business and about angry men who have issues with women and their fathers. A lot of pretentious TV drama aiming for the sweet spot of being included in the canon of the Golden Age of TV endeavours to delve deep into such angry men. As if it were a guarantee of seriousness. Showtime, which made Billions, is up to the same malarkey with Ray Donovan. And tried and failed with Happyish.

On Billions, we've got Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), who emerged from some poor neighbourhood to become the billionaire head of Axe Capital. He's a ruthless financial genius, incredibly shrewd about the market. He presents himself as a clean, cool hero. But, of course, he's got secrets. Maybe one of them is that he breaks the rules about insider trading and such.

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If so, the man to bring him down (the screenplay, from Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin, practically screams "Bring him down!") is Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), a U.S. attorney tasked with tackling white-collar crime and famous for his diligence. Thing is, Chuck is from a very wealthy family – he's not in it for the money, see – and there's the sharp edge of snobbery being wielded. So Billions turns out to be a complicated battle between Chuck and Bobby.

But, wait, that ain't everything. Both men are tortured, you see. Of course they are. This is premium-cable TV drama! Chuck's got a thing for the dominatrix vibe. We know this because we see a woman in stilettos literally walking all over him. And, wait, there's Chuck's wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), who actually works for Axe Capital. Whoa! See the complications ensue! See Bobby narrow his eyes and figure out how to undermine this Chuck dude! As for Chuck, he sort-of absents himself from the attempted takedown of Bobby because, you know, there's his missus Wendy and all. But does he really?

Billions isn't high-grade contemporary TV drama with psychological insight and sharp sociological perspective. It's high-grade trash.

Thing is, big business is fine, fertile ground for great drama, and since the crash of 2008 it has been mined often, in movies and on TV. Right now, people are arguing about the merits of the movie The Big Short and whether it's actually Oscar-worthy.

But the important thing is this: the drama of big business gone awry and corrupt, if it is to be authentically dramatized, is not about such glamorously tortured figures as Bobby Axelrod and Chuck Rhoades. As I write this, the trial has finally begun, in Ireland, of former executives from Anglo Irish Bank. The execs are accused of conspiring to mislead investors by using interbank loans to make Anglo Irish appear more sturdy, by billions, than it actually was. When Anglo Irish collapsed in 2008, it began a chain reaction that eventually cost the Irish government a €64-billion bailout and brought the Irish economy to its knees.

The men on trial are dull, grey characters. Their demon was delusions of grandeur and the scheme they concocted was little more than an elaborate cheque-kiting scam. What unfolded is highly dramatic and traumatized a country, but there is no need to glamorize the main figures as tortured souls to make it a compelling narrative.

Billions is a hit. It's a hit that Showtime needs. But nobody watching it should con themselves into thinking it's an important, incisive drama. I cannot begrudge anyone the pleasure of high-grade trash. No matter what elaborate con Bobby Axelrod has going, the show itself is a pretentious con. It reeks of it.

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Also airing tonight

Lucifer (Fox, CTV, 9 p.m.) starts tonight and is another kind of trash – the mind-boggling kind. Derived from a comic-book thing (Neil Gaiman's Sandman series), it presents us with the Devil himself, having fled hell and hanging round on Earth as sidekick to a detective. He helps solve crimes. No, seriously, that's the premise. When we meet Mr. Lucifer (Tom Ellis), he's a charming chap, very British and running a nightclub or something. He's a hit with the ladies and hates children. (That part is fun.) There's a bit of a sticky wicket because certain parties below in hell want him to come back and quit tomcatting around on Earth. He'd rather stay here, with the flash cars and such. One fine evening there's a murder outside the nightclub. Along comes Detective Chloe Decker (Lauren German) to solve it. Turns out, Det. Decker is immune to the charms and mind-games of Mr. Lucifer and so, intrigued, he helps out. Hellishly bad, is Lucifer.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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