I sometimes feel the less I understand American telly, the more I enjoy it. I adored The West Wing’s dense, rat-a-tat politico-speak and The Wire’s corner boy slang, even though much of it made as much sense as a Scandi drama with the subtitles off.
It’s a rule that goes double for Sky Atlantic’s glossy new acquisition Billions, which is not only in a foreign language (are ‘Skip’ and ‘Rake’ really what people in the States choose to call their children?) but is set in the impenetrable world of high finance. ‘One of my grunts riding the MIDAS spotted a days long buy-spike,’ said one character early on, amid much talk of block trades, overages and people cashing out their shorts. No, me neither.
Despite – or possibly because of – this, Billions is thoroughly gripping. Loosely based on the career of federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, it stars the fabulous Paul Giamatti as ‘Chuck’ Rhoades, a crusading US attorney following ‘a trail of breadcrumbs’ he hopes will lead to super-rich hedge fund manager Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod (Damian Lewis, with those extraordinary eyebrows set to stun).
Axe – the only member of his firm to survive the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers – is a celebrated philanthropist who’s putting his late colleagues’ kids through college; a ‘folk hero’ with his own plaque at Ground Zero. But Chuck knows he’s acquired his wealth through insider trading and bribery, setting the scene for a thrilling game of cat and mouse in the world of bears and bulls (a world the show’s writers seem simultaneously dazzled and appalled by).
Watching these two stags lock horns is electrifying, but there are also plenty of great roles for women, most notably Maggie Siff as Wendy, who takes down a telephone number salary as Axe’s kick-ass performance coach, but also happens to be Chuck’s wife, and occasional dominatrix. Awks.
Who will end up with the whip hand is just one of the burning questions in a compelling modern morality play about money, power, sexual politics and divided loyalties. Mad Men meets Wall Street, I thought it was terrific. From what I understood of it, anyway.
Eating Well with Hemsley and Hemsley
I went for coffee with Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley once. Well, I had coffee – they had something green and good for you. Anyway, they were lovely, and such convincing evangelists for their grain, gluten and sugar-free diet that I went home and bought a spiralizer. I even used it for a while.
This week, the Instagram-friendly sisters cooked a ‘full English’ breakfast using every trucker’s favourite ingredients, asparagus and baby organic spinach. It looked wonderful, and I now think of it wistfully as I wolf down my Coco Pops before the school run.
Him & Her writer Stefan Golaszewksi appears to be channeling the spirit of Mike Leigh (specifically Another Year) with this lovely, understated and sad sitcom starring Lesley Manville as Cathy, a recently widowed mother learning how to… well, carry on, really.
Manville is wonderful, of course, while Peter Mullan gives the finest portrayal of a man frozen in the headlights of an unspoken love since The Fast Show’s Ted and Ralph. But the big laughs come from Kelly, Cathy’s dippy, socially disastrous would-be daughter-in-law – a career-making comic turn from Lisa McGrillis.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, May 19, 2016
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