How “Billions” Became One of TV’s Best Shows

I was ready to write Billions off as a loss. Debuting last year, Showtime’s high-profile financial thriller boasted an impressive cast, helmed by Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis in the dueling roles of U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades and billionaire hedge-fund genius Bobby Axelrod. The writing, led by co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, combined obvious affection for the setting with a gimlet eye for its excesses and crimes (not to mention its denizens’ penchant for comparing themselves to movie gangsters at any given opportunity). But for all that, the combination never quite clicked. The power plays that gave the show its most exciting moments were so fast and furious that character got lost in the shuffle, and Chuck and Bobby’s rivalry, while carefully balanced in terms of audience sympathy, never quite attained the Ahab vs. Moby Dick “from hell’s heart I stab at thee” vibe it demanded.

Then along came Season 2 and, to be blunt, holy shit. Starting with a season premiere that saw it leap straight off the blocks, Billions became one of the most consistently, raucously entertaining shows on television. The war between Bobby and Chuck enlisted a growing cast of characters in its most exciting battles yet, under the eyes of an all-star lineup of directors including Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale), John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), Karyn Kusama (Girlfight), Noah Emmerich (The Americans), Alex Gibney (Going Clear), Ed Bianchi (Deadwood), and Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (the upcoming Captain Marvel). The dialogue was drum-tight and laugh-out-loud funny, the suspense sequences white-knuckle stuff, and the moments of pathos all the more compelling for the show’s general disinterest in pulling at your heartstrings when it could make your heart pound instead. All in all it’s a textbook case of a second-season turnaround, right up there with critics’ darlings The Leftovers and Halt and Catch Fire.

What the hell happened?

Good question! I did my best to answer it for Decider.

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