And Why The Critical Opinion of Both Shows Is Based on their Networks
Last night, while reading the comments of a writer I respect about Succession, a person asked which series they should see: Succession or Billions. Now I admit over the last few weeks I have spent a fair amount of pages ripping both series for being overrated. That said, I have had a chance to look at some of my older reviews of Billions and considering that I put it on my top ten list three times in four years and that I considered it hands down one of the best series of the last five, its not a difficult or close question. Billions is and, at least until Season 5, will always be the superior series.
So why is that so many more people — and certainly those who give awards — have decided that Succession is the far superior series? I have a suspicion, but first I’m going to give my opinion as to why Billions is the better series.
A lot of it has to do with the central billionaire. In Succession that is Logan Roy (Brian Cox) an octogenarian family man who runs the multimedia corporation Waystar and who seems in no hurry to surrender control. Every time I see him onscreen, I wince. He is unpleasant to everybody (one recent review suggested he starts seventy percent of his comments with ‘F off) including and especially his own family. He cares little for anything or anyone except for his company and its clear his views for it are lodged in the past. He knows he has to name a successor but doesn’t want to do it. He may be self-made, but it’s been so long that he’s always used to having it.
Compare to that Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). ‘Axe’ wasn’t born into money nor has an Ivy League education (in the pilot, its made clear he went to Hofstra). He can be as ruthless, cold-blooded and heartless as Logan is, but unlike him he has an inner circle of loyalists. He may not be very good to his actual family (he’s married with twins in Season 1, but divorced and away from them by Season 3) but the people who work for him respect him and are, in some cases, actually willing to go to jail for him. And it’s not only because of money: he has friends who have been devoted to him for years and social causes he cares about immensely. Even when Axe was doing horrible things, he always seemed more likable and approachable than, frankly, any of the Roy clan. (This is a small caveat, but it also helps immensely that Lewis, unlike Cox, can do a capable American accent.)
In Succession, the struggle for power as everyone is aware is almost entirely from within. In Billions, the battle comes from outside forces, most notably the series’ other protagonist Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) Chuck has a ruthless obsession with Axe that has damaged a lot of his other relationships (including ultimately his marriage) but he is intellectually the equal of Bobby and both know it. None of the Roy family has anywhere near the intellect of their father (who is, frankly, stuck in the last century when it comes to his approach to the media) and because they have never known anything but privilege, we feel no sympathy for any of them in any aspects of their lives.
The writing is also superior because of the level of the story. Bobby and Chuck are both brilliant in their respective field; both have the ability to see the board many moves ahead, both are willing to sacrifice pieces whether that be friends or even their own finances in order to get an edge. Both play games of chess so complicated that it was a move of the series to frequently do flashbacks to explain to us just how intricate the moves both sides were making were.
In comparison, the entire Roy clan is at best playing poker but the worst kind. Their poker faces are always easily read by each other, and it doesn’t matter much because none of them wants to wager anything. It’s not enough for them to risk gaining an advantage over the other if there’s just as much a chance they’ll lose it. When Kendall made his bold move to expose Logan at the end of Season 2, it seemed like a game changer but it immediately revealed that Kendall had no idea what to do afterwards because he couldn’t do anything to his father without risking the value of the company. One looks at the entire Roy family and you can’t help but think of not the Murdoch clan but the Bushes — in two famous comments: “they were born on third base and thought they hit a triple” and “they were all born with a silver foot in their mouths.” Say what you will about almost the characters on Billions skills outside of earning money — they are good at their jobs and have had to work at that.
Billions is a series that was always willing to make big risks — Season 4 was based on Chuck and Bobby forming an alliance that was genuine for most of the run. Succession is a series where everything remains static, even the big moves. Billions is a stirring drama and thriller; Succession has been described by the people who love it as a tragic-comedy. Billions has many fascinating characters that all have layers of depth beyond their link to the plot. None of the characters of Succession have any value or dimension compared to the Roy family, not even their own spouses and children. The only thing where Succession seems slightly better off than Billions is the level of dialogue when it comes to the insults that are always being levied — and in all candor, there were always some cracking fine insults on Billions too. They were just done subtly.
So why then is Succession rhapsodized about by awards groups and critics and Billions not even invited? I can’t be entirely certain of this, but I think it’s due to the networks that they’re on. And in a sense, the way most critics view HBO and Showtime is mirrored in the way the characters on Succession and Billions are. HBO is the gold standard when it comes to prestige drama. The fact that its greatest years are for the most part well in the past does not change the fact that far too many of the programs get recognized for awards year after year — it’s often more for legacy than actual quality.
Showtime has always been prestige TV’s poorer cousin, not only just being considered inferior to HBO, but also FX, AMC, USA and Netflix and Hulu. No matter how great the quality of the series — and there have been countless masterpieces that have been almost completely ignored by the Emmys over the years — they will always pale to the weakest HBO series. (Yes I know: Homeland. In that case the series was so extraordinary that the Emmys couldn’t ignore it. After they recognized it in Season 1, it was never a serious contender for Best Drama again despite numerous brilliant seasons afterwards.)
Off the top of my head I can think of at least two brilliant Showtime dramas — Masters of Sex and The Affair — and two long running comedies — Shameless and Episodes — that were ignored by the Emmys for their entire runs in favor of more pedestrian HBO dramas and comedies. Say what you will about the flaws of the Golden Globes but they were always willing to give Showtime some space at the podium. The Affair won three Golden Globes and no less than six Showtime comedies won at least one acting award. (I remember what an upset when Weeds and its lead Mary-Louise Parker upset Desperate Housewives in 2005.) Even Jon Voight’s win for Ray Donavan a series I loathe demonstrates more acknowledgement than the Emmys were willing to give it.
And that is the fundamental difference between Billions and Succession as far as the Emmys goes. I truly believe that if each series had been developed by the other network, Billions would have spent the last four years at least dominating the Emmys and everyone else would be calling Succession ‘a Billions rip-off’. And hell, Billions premiered a full two years before Succession did, so it isn’t like the latter show is truly original in that regard. It’s all about marketing.
So to those of you who want to choose between whether or not to watch Billions or Succession the choice to me is crystal clear. Billions. And then once you’re done with it, watch City on a Hill another extraordinary Showtime drama that not enough people are paying attention to even though Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge are the leads. Then watch The Good Lord Bird, the extraordinary series on John Brown that you probably missed because you were watching The Undoing Sunday nights the same time it was on. (Though to be fair, so was I.) The Emmys may always consider Axe Capital the poorer cousins of Waystar, but trust me the networks that make them have been on equal footing for years and in my opinion, the former has had just as many great shows — if not more — than the latter.