You can almost picture the pitch meeting between the creators of the Wall Street legal drama Billions and a team of suits at Showtime. It’s a show about a hedge fund manager, the producers would have said, and a suspicious pharmaceutical trade. And a bunch of securities fraud investigators. The cable television executives would have shuddered at the words “hedge fund,” a term that few New Yorkers even understand, let alone those outside the financial capital. And it only gets worse from there.
Hollywood has long considered the financial world to be fatally boring—which, considering the vast sums of money, drama, and corruption coursing through it, represents a major creative failing. With the movies The Wolf of Wall Street, Margin Call, and The Big Short, and now the series Billions, premiering Jan. 17, the entertainment industry looks to finish the job. But if anything, it undersells how insane things can really get.
Much of what goes on at hedge funds involves guys wearing chinos tapping at computers, which isn’t exactly edge-of-your-seat action. It’s a narrative challenge that I’ve thought about a great deal while writing a forthcoming book about the story that inspired Billions, the decade-long pursuit of Steven Cohen, the founder of SAC Capital Advisors, by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the FBI, and the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office. Fortunately, in this case, reality is weirder than anything you could make up: SAC traders bribing sources with lobsters, smashing hard drives, and being forced to cross-dress. Billions’ creators—producer/writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien, and financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin—sanitized some of the details, amped up the sex, and massaged it all into the familiar format of a legal drama or police procedural. For the most part, it works.
The action centers on Bobby Axelrod, the manager of an immensely successful hedge fund called Axe Capital, which is housed in an office that looks like an art gallery. Many elements of Axelrod’s universe come from Cohen’s life, especially the clouds of suspicion from securities regulators that surround him. But beyond the surface, the two bear little resemblance. Axe, played by Damian Lewis, isn’t a socially awkward, reclusive trading savant, as some have described his real-life counterpart. Rather, he’s handsome and likable, with a smooth ruthlessness that borders on scary.
The producers take similar liberties with Cohen’s nemesis, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara. Here, he’s known as Chuck Rhoades, played with inspired unease by Paul Giamatti, who channels insecurity into cold-blooded ambition in his desperate pursuit of Axelrod. “Axe is no ordinary billionaire—he’s an icon of the wealth of our age,” Rhoades says. “And he’s a fraud.” While Cohen’s character got an upgrade, Bharara, who is Indian American, will probably not love being de-ethnicized and depicted as a prickly, power-hungry schlub, but the character adjustments make it easier to root for the bad guy against our better judgment. The best character of all may be Rhoades’s wife, Wendy, played by Maggie Siff, who works as an in-house shrink at Axe Capital, making the professional drama personal. (In reality, a now deceased psychiatrist named Ari Kiev roamed SAC’s halls, offering coaching services to Cohen’s traders.)
In the sixth episode, Rhoades has a brief exchange with his deputy, Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), in which Connerty pleads with his boss not to wuss out and settle the case. “I just don’t want Axe to walk away with a fine and a family office,” Connerty says. “I just want to take this one to trial, let the jury decide.” Close readers of the post-financial crisis business pages know that, while SAC Capital faced heavy fines, Cohen himself never saw the inside of a courtroom, let alone a jail cell. Just this month, he reached a favorable settlement with the SEC on one of the final lingering charges. In these vengeful moments, Billions seems most like a typical crime show. What’s a good legal drama, after all, if the prosecutor doesn’t get his man?