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‘Billions’ returns to its original formula without an Axe to grind

<i>Jeff Neumann/Showtime</i><br/>Paul Giamatti and Corey Stoll in the new season of 'Billions.'
Jeff Neumann/SHOWTIME
Jeff Neumann/Showtime
Paul Giamatti and Corey Stoll in the new season of 'Billions.'

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

“Billions” might have lost its Axe, but it returns with the same cutting dialogue, and in many respects, its original formula.

In shedding one of its lead characters, the Showtime drama has essentially hit the reset button, reverting to its outline pitting an aggressive prosecutor against an equally pugnacious billionaire financier. Yet the sixth season also heightens the emphasis on the entire billionaire class, in a more pointed look at income inequality and all that entails.

The surprise exit of Damian Lewis as Bobby “Axe” Axelrod blew a hole in the show that’s ably filled by Corey Stoll as Mike Prince, the rival who effectively outflanked Axe and took control of his company, sending shock waves through the entire organization.

Yet Prince achieved that victory with the help of New York Attorney General Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), only to double-cross him, depriving him of the high-profile conviction that he was eager to secure.

Never one to shy away from a fight, Rhoades, naturally, has moved on to combating Prince, while Prince must go through the process of swallowing a company filled with hard-driving overachievers who worshipped at the altar of Axe and view him with understandable skepticism.

Those two scenarios unlock a whole lot of inherent drama, in a way that has reinvigorated a show that, frankly, had become a little stale. The storytelling suddenly feels tighter, fueled in part by the return to a clash-of-the-titans backbone.

“Billions” also benefits from the sharpness of its writing, which tosses off lines referencing movies like “Trading Places,” presents alpha males bonding over Harry Chapin’s song “Cats in the Cradle” and gives Chuck lines like, referencing his public admission that he had been in a dominant-submissive relationship, “No more skeletons in my closet to rattle. Let ’em just try to Spitzer me.”

The new season works in some amusing cameos, one capitalizing on Prince’s love of using basketball philosophy to motivate the troops (he’s a big fan of coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success), and another involving real-life journalist Olivia Nuzzi, with the threat of a damaging leak dangled over somebody’s head.

After blazing hot at the outset, “Billions'” star has cooled, eclipsed (rightfully so) by “Succession” as the standard-bearer for premium-TV dissections of the rich and powerful.

Nevertheless, the Rhoades campaign against a city run by a “cabal of billionaires,” and his railing against “plutocrats,” provides the sort of hook that, through five episodes anyway, has moved “Billions” from “hold” back into the “strong buy” column.

“Billions” begins its sixth season Jan. 23 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.

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