Showtime TV bets 'Billions' with drama on Wall Street power brokers

By Bob Tourtellotte

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Cable TV network Showtime goes prospecting for audiences like a buy-side broker this month with its new show “Billions,” a drama that packs power, money and sex into Hollywood's latest look behind Wall Street’s financial curtain.

While some people hate the Street, Hollywood is betting that viewers love seeing, reading and talking about the power brokers of global finance. That cultural quirk is now on display as Oscar-hopeful movie "The Big Short," about men who made money from the 2007-08 financial collapse, wins fans at U.S. box offices.

Showtime and “Billions” executive producers Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin are banking on the same sort of interest among TV fans.

"It’s kind of got everything," Koppelman said of Wall Street's appeal. "It’s got high stakes. Wins and losses. They (the power brokers) influence so much, and it's fun to watch really smart people go up against things they can't figure out."

The show’s creators chose British actor Damian Lewis, who played the conflicted U.S. Marine Nicholas Brody on smash hit “Homeland,” to portray one of those smart people.

Lewis' character, Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, is an up-from-the-streets businessman and founder of Axe Capital. He epitomizes an American dream of thankful success in public, but is conniving – some might think criminal – when the boardroom door slams shut.

Axe’s rival is U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, played by veteran actor Paul Giamatti, who was raised among privilege, educated in the Ivy League and dedicated to fighting corruption on Wall Street. Yet Rhoades too displays dual parts to his nature, especially in his private chamber.

Behind the two stand Axe’s street-smart wife, Lara (Malin Akerman), and Chuck’s better half, Wendy (Maggie Siff), a senior executive at Axe’s multibillion-dollar firm.

Helping the show’s creators lift the cloak of Wall Street’s rich and powerful was Sorkin, a veteran New York Times columnist, co-anchor or CNBC’s “Squawk Box” and author of the bestseller “Too Big to Fail,” about the 2007-08 financial crisis.

"He has an incredible, not just contact base, but perspective and point of view," Koppelman said of Sorkin. "I can’t give the specifics of people he connected us with because we promised confidentiality."

"Billions" officially debuts on Showtime on Jan. 17, but since last week, the network has been offering free sampling on social media such as YouTube and Facebook, and on its digital streaming services.

(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Matthew Lewis)