‘Billions’ returns to its original formula with no ax to grind

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

“Billions” may have lost its ax, but it returns with the same cutting dialogue and, in many ways, its original formula.

By getting rid of one of its main characters, the Showtime drama essentially hit the reset button, returning to its outline pitting an aggressive prosecutor against an equally pugnacious billionaire financier. Yet the sixth season also focuses on the entire billionaire class, in a sharper look at income inequality and all that that entails.

Damian Lewis’ surprise exit as Bobby “Axe” Axelrod has left a hole in the show that’s deftly filled by Corey Stoll as Mike Prince, the rival who effectively outflanked Ax and took over his company, sending shock waves throughout the organization.

Yet Prince pulled off that victory with the help of New York Attorney General Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) to double-cross him, robbing him of the much-publicized conviction he was eager to get.

Never one to shy away from a fight, Rhoades naturally moved on to fighting Prince, while Prince has to go through the process of swallowing a company full of gifted people who worshiped at Ax’s altar and watched him with understandable skepticism. .

Both of these storylines unlock a lot of inherent drama, in a way that reinvigorated a show that, frankly, had become a bit stale. The storytelling suddenly feels tighter, fueled in part by returning to a spine from the clash of the titans.

“Billions” also benefits from the sharpness of its writing, which throws lines referencing movies like “Trading Places,” features alpha males bonding over Harry Chapin’s song “Cats in the Cradle,” and gives Chuck lines like, referring to his public admission that he had been in a dominant-submissive relationship, “No more skeletons in my closet to shake. Just let them try to Spitzer me.

The new season works in a few fun cameos, one capitalizing on Prince’s love of using basketball philosophy to motivate the troops (he’s a big fan of coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success). ), and another involving journalist Olivia Nuzzi, with the threat of a damaging leak hanging over anyone’s head.

After being searing at first, the ‘Billions’ star has cooled, (rightly) eclipsed by ‘Succession’ as the standard-bearer for premium TV dissections of the rich and powerful.

Nonetheless, Rhoades’ campaign against a city run by a ‘billionaire cabal’ and his slurs against ‘plutocrats’ provide the kind of hook that, across five episodes anyway, has moved ‘billions’ from ‘withholding’. towards the “strong buy” column.

“Billions” begins its sixth season Jan. 23 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.

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