Oscar Wilde, who famously wrote that life imitates art far more than art imitates life, obviously never saw Billions. The new Showtime series, which pits fictional hedge fund billionaire Bobby (Axe) Axelrod against U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, bears an eerie resemblance to the real-life showdown between expert trader Steve Cohen and the current sheriff of Wall Street, Preet Bharara.
Axelrod, played by Damian Lewis, is the founder of Axe Capital, a Westport, Connecticutbased firm known for its ability to get an inside edge and deliver outsize returns. The 45-year-old British actor has made a successful career portraying Americans, most notably Sergeant Nicholas Brody on another Showtime series, Homeland. To prepare for his current role, Lewis went on a tour of several hedge fund firms with New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin, a co-creator and an executive producer of Billions, and met with billionaire managers. I just got the sense from them that the money was incidental to the game, Lewis explained during an interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The game was the most interesting thing, and winning the game was really what drove them.
Winning is also essential for U.S. Attorney Rhoades (played by American actor Paul Giamatti of Sideways fame), who is riding a streak of 81 consecutive insider trading convictions when he decides to build a case against Axelrod. Although his wife, Wendy, works as a performance coach at Axe Capital, Rhoades initially refuses to recuse himself from the investigation and travels to Iowa to meet with a key witness who had leaked inside information to one of Axelrods portfolio managers.
When Rhoades is unable to turn that manager against his boss, he decides to pursue an out-of-court settlement with Axelrod, offering terms that are strikingly similar to what Bharara negotiated with Cohen and his firm SAC Capital in 2013: plead guilty to insider trading charges, pay a record $1.9 billion fine and agree to return all outside money to investors and operate as a family office. But unlike Cohen, Axelrod walks away from the deal, halfway through the season, ensuring plenty of drama over the final six episodes when the series resumes on March 6.
Follow Michael Peltz on Twitter at @mppeltz.