I met Damien Lewis, socially, at the Peaky Blinders BFI event last week. He was there to support his wife Helen McCrory. I’ve known Billions (Showtime; Sky Atlantic) was coming since January when I read this lengthy profile of Lewis in the New Yorker. We chatted about Billions, and about working in America, which he predominantly has done since being cast in Homeland. I was fascinated to hear him talk about how rigorous and bracing the American writing method is for an actor. We all know that the crucial difference between British and US drama (and comedy) is money: that is, they can afford to hire teams of writers and put them on the payroll; we can’t. As a result, our drama and comedy has an authorial “voice”, but theirs has an industrial fine-tuning that we can’t match. (And nor, I suspect, would most British-based writers want to match.) Having now watched episode one of Billions, created by three men, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, David Cornejo (they can’t even have ideas on their own!), and co-produced/co-written by Andrew Ross Sorkin (Too Big To Fail), Willie Reale, Peter K Blake, Heidi Shreck and Wes Jones, it’s clear to see how much polishing and “punching up” goes into these team-written shows. It’s like the difference between a car being washed, and a car being washed and waxed.
Many of my all-time favourite US dramas are produced this way, writers’ room style, and I’m not complaining. I wouldn’t want to do it, but I’m glad they do. Just listen to some of the finely honed lines in episode one of Billions.
“The decisions we make, the judgements we bring, have weight.”
“My cholesterol levels are high enough, don’t butter my ass.”
“A good matador doesn’t kill a fresh bull. You wait until he’s stuck a few times.”
“You do an autopsy on the deal, you’ll find yourself a Pulitzer in the carcass.”
These are lines you can quote. Whether anyone in real life would ever say anything like this is debatable, even in the testosterone circus of high finance, the world Billions is set in. Steven Knight, creator and “author” of Peaky Blinders, told me that he hates the idea of working in a room full of writers. “I think writers’ rooms work with comedy,” he said. “But I’m not so sure with drama. It becomes about social interaction and who can dominate that room. The person who sits there doing nothing might write the best scripts. And if one person wants to do it this way and another person wants to do it that way, you end up doing it the middle way. Writers’ rooms do produce some brilliant stuff, but I don’t know how. It must be an American facility for that.”
It’s learned behaviour. Sure, it’s entirely possible that “You do an autopsy on the deal, you’ll find yourself a Pulitzer in the carcass” was written by a single writer. But it’s much more likely to have been re-written by the room, until every cadence and every syllable works like a well-oiled machine. Ever since The West Wing, I have been captivated by these kind of hyperreal, almost vaudevillian speech patterns. (Andrew Ross Sorkin, by the way, doesn’t appear to be related to Aaron Sorkin, the monarch of this kind of stuff.)
The first episode of any US series feels like a product. It’s more often than not the pilot, which sells the whole series, and the next, and the next. But if it’s done as well as Billions, all that effort feels like light work. We can just stretch back and enjoy the show. And with two leads like the almost feline Lewis, as the happily-married rags-to-riches hedge funder (he eats White Castle burgers at his desk), and character heavyweight Paul Giamatti as the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, facing up against each other from the off, there’s plenty to enjoy. The genius bullet-point is that Lewis’s billionaire, Axelrod (“Axe”) is the fund’s only surviving partner from 9/11 – he literally rose from the ashes – and while that haunts him with survivor guilt, it also gives him the altruistic cover any predator in Wall Street needs (he’s actually based in Connecticut): he started a foundation for the families of his deceased partners and carefully keeps it just out of the public domain enough to make it seem like he’s not doing it for publicity points. Without this aspect, Billions would be worth less.
The first concentric circle of supporting stars is also strong: Maggie Siff (Rachel from Mad Men) as the in-house shrink for masters of the universe who’ve lost their mojo, and Malin Akerman (Watchmen) as Lewis’s fightin’-Irish alpha-wife. David Costabile, as some kind of fixer, is also a welcome face – he was in Breaking Bad and Suits. The first episode also contained at least three solid reveals that show the confidence of the plotting (I won’t reveal them). There are some additional allusions in here, too that I dig – Axe’s dog territorially pisses in his kitchen and he admires it for doing so (explaining its instinctive actions to his two boys), and the sight of the same dog neutered, and with its head in a cone, which drives Axe to do something flamboyantly foolish in the public eye, which sparks the investigation that surely drives the first season.
Sky Atlantic and Showtime have episode-dumped the entire season in one hit. I can’t wait to gorge on the remaining 11, which are already mocking me for not having seen them yet. This is already a series whose judgments have weight.