Billions Was A Great Show. I Won’t Be Watching It Again
Conclusion: What Billions And Too Many Shows Like It Are Ruining Peak TV
There has always been a tendency by quite a few people who cover Peak TV to think that so much of just involves ‘Bad People Doing Bad Things.” This blanket statement has some truth, but it covers up a larger issue.
Yes, the lion’s share of television in the first decade of new millennium did follow that mantra. But part of the reason it was effective was also because the lion’s share of these bad people were at the mercy of the broken system. For all the nastiness of The Sopranos, Chase and his writers made clear that they were pretty much at the end of a bad system. They might be kings of New Jersey, but that was the end of their reign. (The clearest example of this came in ‘Luxury Lounge’. Christopher is trying to convince Ben Kingsley to star in his movie, and when he goes to Hollywood he learns first hand how parched a gangster’s life is compared to a superstar.)
The lion’s share of these series followed this idea: Deadwood made it clear as bad as Al Swearengen and his cronies were they paled in comparison to the share monstrousness of George Hearst and his ilk. Don Draper and most of the people in Mad Men were upper-class white people, to be sure, but they were always going to be viewed as little more than hired help to the businesses they worked for. Shows like 24 and The Shield would demonstrate just the extremes law enforcement would go keep us safe, and The Wire would often show, particularly in the political episodes, that everyone in the drug wars, dealer or cop was at the mercy of the broken system.
I’m not entirely certain when the fundamental idea of how Peak TV changed, but if I had to guess it was the combination of the success of House of Cards on Netflix and the breakout success of Scandal. Somewhere along those lines, television seems to have moved from the idea of ‘Bad People Doing Bad Things’ to ‘Powerful People Doing Bad Things’ This may be a subject for a longer article but it is clear that in the past decade, far too many series focus on the ideas of the evils that the rich and powerful do and how they manage to get away with it. There have been some notable exceptions over the last decade — The Americans and Better Call Saul are the most prominent examples — but we seem to have a sense that far too many television series are based on that premise. You may argue there’s more sexual and racial variety but in a sense there really is much of a difference between watching what the Lyons did on Empire to anything the Underwoods would do.
I will admit that one of my favorite series of this era, The Good Wife, was no less guilty of this sin. More often than not, we watch Alicia Florrick and the attorneys as Lockhart-Gardener make their living by helping the rich and powerful get away with crimes. One of the major arcs, after all, dealt with them handling the ‘legitimate businesses of Lamond Bishop, a drug dealer who was described by more than one critic as this series of The Wire’s Stringer Bell. That’s before you count in the political aspect which started with Peter being in prison for crimes and ascending the levels of Cook County Politics even though it was clear every season that there was some level of corruption in his campaign. The big difference was that almost all the central characters either felt guilty about their actions sometimes or often were moved like pawns by forces beyond their control. (It also helped matters that so many of the attorneys who opposed them in court had no such scruples but were more than willing to use their own bodies to give them an advantage. I’m thinking in particular of recurring characters played by Martha Plimpton and Michael J. Fox. Plimpton’s character always seemed to be either pregnant or had babies with her when she was arguing cases; Fox’s was always using his health for an advantage. For an entire season, he seemed to be on his deathbed and was using that as an excuse to destroy everything Alicia and Diane were trying to build.)
But overall I find this theme, and so many of even the best series of this line, utterly distasteful. That’s why I find it so hard to watch Succession and much of the back half of Veep. These were rich and powerful people with no moral scruples and no redeeming qualities, yet somehow we were supposed to enjoy these series just because the insults were well written. Besides, we’ve spent the last decade watching the news learning that the rich and powerful can get away with anything. Why would you want that as part of your entertainment? Frankly, I find it somewhat troubling that the Emmys and other awards shows seem to prefer these kinds of shows over The Crown in the former case and Transparent and black-ish in the latter.
And in a sense, the finale of Season 5 of Billions seemed determined to use all the worst aspects of this era of TV with the worst aspects of how so much network TV works these days. In last night’s episode Bobby, finally facing prison for his crimes, decided that he could not be a caged animal and decided to flee the country. Now there was certain logic to it — Damian Lewis was going to leave the series — but rather than try to use this as a reason to end the show, the writers did everything wrong.
Rather than have him face any justice, Bobby turned to the man who at his core was responsible Mike Prince (Corey Stoll) and was forced to sell Axe Capital. Bobby fled the country to Switzerland, leaving everything around him a wreck and Prince in control. The struggle between Bobby and Chuck, which has been the backbone of the series, is now over. But Chuck didn’t take five minutes before marching into Prince’s office and saying that his new mission was to destroy him.
I don’t think there’s been as truly a horrible decision to keep a series going since Kevin Spacey was forced to leave House of Cards. I understand the reasoning behind it — in both cases, the series had been picked up for a sixth season — but I’m astounding that the writers of Billions somehow think it would work. All of the relationships in the series centered on Bobby Axelrod. Why should we care about watching Wags be corrupt or Wendy and Taylor being in a horrible position now that Bobby’s gone? And it’s not remotely believable that a man who focused all his energy and rage on Bobby in the way that Chuck did could just shrug it off and say: “Oh well, next ruthless billionaire.” And yet, according to the trailers that ran after the finale that appears to be what the writers and Showtime are expecting the long time fans to do.
Billions, like I said at the start, was once a great show. There is no arguing that point. But what is clear is that whatever greatness the series once had has somehow gotten buried under the worst aspects of both Peak TV and network TV. There may be some way for the show’s writers to dig there way out of this, but I really don’t have any interest in seeing them try. And the question is for Showtime, how long do they really expect any one else to stay around either?