I turned off “Billions” a minute after its opening scene of a bound, chained and muffled Paul Giamatti engaged in some S & M sex. My beef is not with what consenting adults do to each other in the game of arousal - it’s that since I don’t consider victimless perversions any of my business, I similarly choose not to watch or be implicated in them. I subsequently heard that the episode which involved burning and urination turned out to be between husband and wife. Instead of softening my reaction, this reinforced my resistance to being a voyeur of other people’s masochistic fantasies. Though the creators of Billions beg the issue of pushing boundaries between porn and regular tv by making the participants a happily married couple, the viewer is the one being exploited. This belief was sustained after watching the second episode of Billions in which all the characters - male and female - sprinkle their dialogue with heavy doses of language similar to the gangsters on The Sopranos.
Just as men have been convinced by fashion to sport the unshaved, grizzled look for the past few years, writers have succumbed to the notion that it enhances the macho quality of their highly educated characters to hyphenate all their words with the F word. So we have the US attorney and of his female associates speaking the same way that uneducated and inarticulate characters do. There are no longer distinctions in language that would normally signify differences in class, education, gender and profession. Watching Billions, I thought of the difference between programming for PBS and for cable channels and the duplicity of pretending that what is being shown on Showtime is simply a reflection of reality. In the name of nostalgie de la boue, there is a conscious effort to degrade the more educated proponents of lawful society so that their behavior becomes no different from the criminal element. In some ways, this is the reverse of what David Chase did in The Sopranos where murderous criminals lived upper-class lifestyles - decorating their Mcmansions, consulting psychiatrists and concerning themselves with getting their children into Ivy League schools. This was a clever way of appealing to the target audience that would pay for a premium cable channel and remain interested in the affairs of organized crime.
In “Billions,” we have the underlying reverse snobbery of writers who are equating the movers and shakers at the top of the financial and legal worlds with the same vulgar attributes as low-level criminals. Though there is no shortage of criminal malfeasance among the best and the brightest, we would be surprised if a show about a senator who drove his car off a bridge and left his passenger to drown without calling for help were to show him speaking with the same dialogue as a criminal thug. The character who plays the in-house psychologist for the hedge funder’s firm wear stiletto heels to work, a reminder bridge between her professional life and what we have already seen of her private sexual proclivities. The actress who plays the billionaire society wife is shown with a very large tattoo on her upper-class back - another blur of class distinctions as is the billionaire showing up for meetings wearing a tee shirt. Without debating the incontrovertible existence of criminal and sexually violent behavior among the upper classes, Billions is less interested in moral judgments than in making those behaviors as salaciously seductive and exhibitionistic as censors will allow. As a critic, I can only point to what’s wrong with that picture and how it contributes to the ongoing acceptance of deviancy in popular culture and as part of normal behavior in the society it reflects.
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