If money equals power, then Bobby “Axe” Axelrod is the human equivalent of an exploding supernova.
The astonishingly wealthy main character of Showtime’s hit series Billions, portrayed by Damian Lewis, seems to represent everything that’s equally captivating and reprehensible about TV’s most über-rich characters.
Yes, he may have risen from humble beginnings, and, as his company’s sole 9/11 survivor, he does now send the children of his former colleagues to college. But he also uncompromisingly controls a hedge fund where not everything is on the up and up, except the profits.
That conduct has drawn the attention of an equally ambitious U.S. Attorney (played by Paul Giamatti) who smells something rotten in Axe’s business dealings. No wonder the billionaire has a 14-karat gold chip on his shoulder.
“When did it become a crime to succeed in this country?” Axe ironically asks a financial reporter in the series pilot. “America used to salute the guy in the limousine. They wanted to be the guy in the limousine — they still want to. But now they throw eggs at it.”
And that dichotomy suggests why Americans are increasingly tuning into the show, and others like it — from the network’s House of Lies, to ABC’s Madoff movie, to Fox’s Empire, the Real Housewives franchise on Bravo and more. It seems we cannot get enough of the rich being rich.
That may be because, despite all reports to the contrary, our financially frustrated country still hasn’t recovered in a post-2008-recession world. Even in the bare-knuckle power grab of politics, one party’s front-runner candidate is a megalomaniac billionaire who has seduced a large part of the voting nation, in part, because he was once best known for fi ring up ratings on The Apprentice.
Through complicated TV characters, viewers just can’t wait to watch wealth and power play out in an increasingly unreal world. We admire their success, celebrate their failure and then plunk down some dollars on Powerball tickets in the hopes of joining their ranks.
“Billions taps into our extreme awareness of the gap between the super rich and everyone else,” Showtime president of programming Gary Levine said. “The show not only shines a light on wealth, but taps into the zeal for balancing the scales.”
WHO SHOT TO THE TOP?
The popularity of shows that exploit this thirst for balance — primed by ugly economic uncertainty — has its roots in the late ’70s. Back then, hour-long waits to get half a tank of gas and anger over the Arab oil embargo somehow led Americans to embrace an oil baron named J.R. Ewing who made it clear at every opportunity that he couldn’t give a rat’s behind what you thought of him. That first incarnation of Dallas, in 1978, was a blissful soap, with all the conflicts and backstabbing you’d need to create a perennial favorite.
But there were no illusions that Larry Hagman’s soulless eyes in the part of Ewing earned the show its ratings victories, not to mention its premier landmark status in the canon of Greed Is Good TV. And when millions stuck around in 1980 to find out “Who Shot J.R.?” the lure of the character — underhanded and despicable and yet somehow charming — help split public opinion way in the favor of those who wanted him to survive vs. those who wanted him dead.
Dallas begat 1981’s Dynasty, and those two series helped nourish the thirst for the excesses of wealth until real prosperity in the 1980s seemed to kill the need. Granted, magazine show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous filled that void starting in 1984, but there was no real drama there, and no jealous sense of want, unless it was for simple champagne wishes and caviar dreams.
It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that things got ugly again — the Enron business, a presidential scandal that stank like a bad cigar and then, soon enough, the brutal bursting of the dot-com bubble that deflated many portfolios of the average American. The bitterness that followed inspired more greed TV. Since unscripted was king, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire parlayed that enticing title into primetime prominence, and the deliciously cutthroat Survivor dominated pre-Facebook water cooler conversation.
After 9/11 reset the national consciousness, Americans witnessed the slow devolution of Washington; between that and the great recession we were given Scandal, The Good Wife and House of Cards. Plus, we gained not only real housewives, but desperate ones as well.
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL
Is there a character that better represents the vast expanse of unlimited power more than Francis Underwood on Netflix’s House of Cards? Perhaps he has some competition from the unlimited monetary resources that seem to work through the worlds of Showtime series Billions, House of Lies and Ray Donovan.
“I think viewers have a fascination with what is perceived that someone can get away with because of their power, their celebrity or their position,” Bill Carroll, senior vice president and director of content strategy for Katz Television Group, said.
There is arguably no arena where the obsession — and repulsion — of viewers watching power and position is more evident than in the current race for the White House. Recent statistics tab the inequality between rich and poor at a 30-year high, and the number of Americans on food stamps holds steady at over 46 million. How could one not, in that position, believe in a man whose name equals success etched in gold, while others fixate on what they see as a rampant thirst for power?
One must assume Donald Trump takes some cues from fellow TV character Underwood (Kevin Spacey), who sets the tone for his character’s ruthlessness in the first episode of House of Cards by calmly killing an injured dog — the “what will he think of next” shock is impossible to ignore. What better role model has the polls-leading businessman got than a politician who leads a positively unchecked public life?
Much like with The Donald, who is utterly unapologetic and has no filter, drama sometimes requires the rich to live entirely by their wits. On House of Lies, the father of Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle), who had made an honest living as a therapist, asks his son, “Since when is management consultant a real job?”
Kaan’s reply? “Since it pays seven figures a year,” justifying anything and everything he might choose to do to either secure moneyed clients or make the wealthy even wealthier. When he tricks an incredibly rich CEO into hiring his consultancy, he turns to the camera and brags that there’s no feeling better than, “The moment you have the guy who has the world by the balls by the balls.”
Breaking the fourth wall and addressing the folks at home seems to be another privilege enjoyed by the rich and powerful — it’s a conceit also enjoyed in Madoff and House of Cards — and on House of Lies, this is a magical turn. We can celebrate the triumph of a merciless financial consultant because he cheated someone even richer than himself. What viewer wouldn’t want to be him?
Bobby Axelrod provides a similar guilty pleasure in an early episode of Billions when he manages to underpay for the rights to have a building that will now be named after him. To do so, Axe must buy off the old-moneyed descendants of the man for whom the building is currently named.
After an impassioned speech about one of those scions at the table making him feel small when Axe was a lowly and poor golf caddy as a kid, the new billionaire offers only a fraction of what he’d promised to the now-desperate and indebted family — who take the money with hardly a quibble.
The family looks almost cartoonishly humiliated, making this the perfect viewer fantasy. Who hasn’t ever dreamed of hitting it big, and then lashing out at the elite who once put you down? After all, when you come from humble roots, doing whatever you want is now your privilege.
“It humanized him as a character,” Levine said of Axelrod’s early-life struggles. “That is part of our fascination with wealth, particularly in this high-tech day and age, where people can achieve enormous wealth within one lifetime and don’t have built-in family dynasties.”
The appeal often boils down to how scrappy you’ve needed to be in order to achieve your American dream. Perhaps nobody lives that on TV better these days than Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) on Fox’s ratings giant Empire, who helps her husband build a record company from nothing, serves 17 years in jail on a drug rap and then returns, thirsty for what she’s got coming to her.
The at-any-cost eff ort to succeed gives everyone outside the most elevated tax bracket a modicum of hope that anything is possible — whether the riches are scripted or real. Shari Levine, executive vice president of current production at Bravo, sees that working as one of the great appeals of the network’s Real Housewives series.
“I think our housewives are ambitious women who have achieved for different reasons,” she said. “Kandi Burruss of Real Housewives of Atlanta is one of the hardest-working women I’ve ever seen. There are so many businesses she’s started and is still running. It embraces so many qualities that Americans admire.”
The Housewives franchise offers arguably the simplest and most satisfying appeal of shows where money is central — the fundamental truth that it doesn’t buy happiness … but it can’t hurt.
In the 10 years between the premieres of the Orange County and Dallas installments, Real Housewives has produced a total of nine U.S. series, 12 spinoff s (including Bethenny Ever After, Vanderpump Rules and Manzo’d With Children) and, fittingly enough, many tie-in appearances on Bravo corporate sibling NBC’s The Apprentice. Erika Jayne, the newest addition to the cast of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, is a top-selling dance music artist who lives with her lawyer husband in a Pasadena mansion on five acres. Her tagline, which she states at the beginning of each episode, is, “I’m an enigma wrapped in a riddle — and cash.”
“That’s a very Housewife-ian statement,” Shari Levine admitted. “Erika comes across very much herself and owns who she is. She speaks from a place of deep honesty.”
And that’s needed on a show where the complaints, even seen through the filter of first-world issues, strike viewers as familiar — conflicts with marriage and kids, money, jealousy, infidelity, you name it. “They’re real people with real issues,” Levine added.
“They’re people suffering slings and arrows of just living and you see this happening. It’s a real series, even if it seems unreal because of that affluence.”
Even Levine, who has been involved in every Real Housewives series, is not immune to just how unreal it is. In the end, whatever the lure that brings fans to the show, you can never argue with that single biggest guilty pleasure — the glory of all that money.
Of the lavish Montecito, Calif., home owned by Beverly Hills cast member and restaurateur Lisa Vanderpump, Levine said: “I should be immune to all this. I have watched so many episodes. But I am always stunned when I go into her home. It’s a luxurious life and a beautiful life.”
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Rob has written for Broadcasting+Cable since 2006, starting with his work on the magazine’s award-winning 75th-anniversary issue. He was born a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium … so of course he’s published three books on NASCAR, most notably, Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of NASCAR Legend Curtis Turner. He’s currently the special projects editor at TV Guide Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post and his origami art has been in The Wall Street Journal. He lives with his family in New Jersey and is writing a novel about the Wild West.