Roush Review: Billions Adds Up to High Alpha Drama, Angie Tribeca Gags on Laughs and Mercy Street Needs Life

Matt Roush
Damian Lewis as Bobby "Axe" Axelrod  and Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades in Billions (Season 1, Episode 1). -
JoJo Whilden/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: Billions_101_5107.R

Billions: Problems in Power Play

My biggest problem with Billions is that I'm not sure I'd give a plugged nickel for either of the arrogant creeps at the heartless heart of this slick and juicy high-finance melodrama, which pits a self-made hedge-fund billionaire against a ruthless U.S. Attorney in a bitter campaign of alpha-takes-all combat.

At least Bobby "Axe" Axelrod (Homeland's Damian Lewis) of the high-rolling Axe Capital has some charisma in his swagger, nurturing his "man of the people" image by wearing rock 'n' roll T-shirts at work and wolfing down White Castle burgers at his desk. Though he says he's never seen Citizen Kane, which becomes a subplot that begs unflattering comparisons, Axelrod has a mansion's worth of Rosebuds in his emotional baggage. His firm's sole 9/11 survivor, he holds serious grudges from his working-class days as a paperboy and caddy and relishes the opportunity to rub his victims' noses in his pay dirt.

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But he's a pussycat compared to beetle-browed bulldog Chuck Rhoades (dyspeptic Paul Giamatti), a politically motivated U.S. Attorney for New York whose 81-0 record at taking down financial miscreants faces its biggest challenge in his crusade against the popular Axelrod. And not just because his strong-willed wife Wendy (Sons of Anarchy's Maggie Siff) works at Axe as a "Dr. Mojo" corporate shrink who pumps up the overstressed traders by convincing them they're all

She knows better. And knowing both adversaries so well, she rightly sees their conflict as an unnecessary war of egos that puts her in the uncomfortable middle. Wendy only has so much control over her husband—except when she's playing dominatrix in their private sex games. (There's nothing subtle about Billions, which wallows in kink and filthy language just because it can.) And when Wendy tries to keep her boss from buying a $63 million beach house because of the optics that will make him look like "just another rich a—hole," guess what happens.

The twists get wilder as the stakes get higher in a show where "rapacious scumbag" is seen as a term of endearment, leading to a memorable showdown in the sixth episode. Consider Billions a lesser substitute while we wait till summer for the next season of the even more pugnacious Ray Donovan.

Angie Tribeca

Jennifer Clasen/PBS

Angie Tribeca

Angie Tribeca: Badges and Binges

Here's one way to call attention to your silly little cop parody, which has been sitting on the shelf for seemingly ages: Blow out the entire 10-episode first season in a 25-hour commercial-free loop of a marathon binge opportunity, cashing in on the latest TV-watching craze. Such is TBS's strategy for Angie Tribeca, which sends up procedural clichés with the zeal if not the efficacy that Get Smart once used to spoof spy thrillers. (This may also evoke fond memories of the short-lived Police Squad! and Sledge Hammer! Why Angie Tribeca lacks its own exclamation point is beyond me!)

Smart-alecky is the best way to describe this anything-goes-for-a-laugh effort perpetrated by executive producers Steve Carell and wife Nancy Walls Carell. The flurry of sophomoric sight gags, shameless puns and recurring jokes (a young officer barfs at even the most benign crime scene) is beyond relentless, creating its own form of comic police brutality. Which elicits this confession: I laughed out loud each time a particularly intrusive product placement introduced itself in the first episode. I also chuckled at a truly ridiculous "LOL" pun in the fourth episode. (I gave up after the fifth. As often happens during a binge, the novelty wears thin with sustained viewing.)

Playing the prickly and abrasive LAPD detective Angie Tribeca, Parks and Recreation's Rashida Jones sustains an admirable deadpan throughout, even when a throwaway quip about her panties being in a bunch leads to Angie showing off her … use your imagination, because Angie Tribeca leaves no obvious joke untrampled. Hayes MacArthur is her dutiful, heart-on-his-sleeve partner, named J. Geils—which isn't even funny once, though MacArthur earns his share of laughs, especially with physical comedy. The ensemble also includes black-ish co-star Deon Cole partnered with a K9 and Justified's Jere Burns as the malcontent captain, bellowing every line.

With guest stars including Lisa Kudrow, James Franco, Adam Scott and Sarah Chalke popping up in the first few episodes, there's little doubt that everyone on set is having a blast. And with jokes flying by so fast, you may find yourself laughing more often than you think you should. But this is a show where I'm betting the outtakes are funnier than the intentional humor. (If you don't have time to binge, the first season will be replayed in its regular weekly time period, Mondays at 9/8c, starting Jan. 25, with a second season coming later this year.)

Mercy Street

Antony Platt/PBS

Mercy Street

Mercy Street: No "Mercy" for Yanks and Rebs

Set during the Civil War in 1862, in a hotel-turned-hospital in the melting pot of Alexandria, Virginia, the handsomely produced Mercy Street is a rare and noble effort by PBS to supplement all of those British imports with a dose of homegrown American drama. A shame that it quickly reveals itself to be a fiddle-dee-disappointment.

This contrived Gone With the ER, headlined by Josh Radnor as a morphine-addicted surgeon (shades of The Knick) and bland Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a rigid widowed nurse who'd rather not treat Confederate patients in her ward, is museum-piece stiff in its characterizations of heroes and villains, Yankees and Rebs, and "contraband" freed African-Americans who are noble in posture but lacking in nuance. It's stubbornly dull and contrived, except in those moments of primitive triage so graphic you may beg for mercy.

Billions premieres Sunday, Jan. 17, 10/9c, on Showtime

Angie Tribeca marathon begins Sunday, Jan. 17, 9/8c, on TBS

Mercy Street premieres Sunday, Jan. 17, 10/9c on PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)


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TV critic (and occasional TV therapist) Matt Roush answers viewer questions and concerns in his Ask Matt column each week. Wondering about plots, characters and twists on your fave shows? Submit your query to Matt via the form below: