'Billions' second season looks less like a sure thing

Damian Lewis in Showtime's 'Billions'

(CNN)"Billions" raced through so much story during its highly entertaining first season that the second, perhaps inevitably, yields diminishing returns. Yet the show is also somewhat victimized by bad timing, chronicling an epic battle between a billionaire investor and government watchdog at a moment when financial regulations are being diluted, if not outright dismantled.

The Showtime series remains watchable thanks in large part to its central combatants, the aforementioned mogul Bobby "Axe" Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and U.S. attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). The two are again at each other's throats, with no shortage of surrogates caught between them, foremost among them Rhoades' estranged wife (Maggie Siff), who had worked for Axelrod as an in-house psychologist.
The strained relationships, however, feel a bit played out. The addition of a few new characters helps -- including Asia Kate Dillon as one of Axelrod's new employees, a gender-non-comforming young financial whiz -- but even with the high-stakes chess match being played "Billions" risks becoming this year's version of "The Affair," a program that flamed brightly, creatively faded in season two and slipped into absurdity in its third edition.
From that perspective, the subtext to "Billions" might be more interesting coming back, as it does, as the new Trump administration stocks its cabinet heavily with Goldman Sachs alumni. While the show explores a contentious environment where ambitious prosecutors see characters like Axelrod as ripe, inviting targets, the dance between financial firms and the levers of government suddenly appears considerably cozier.
"Billions" was co-created by New York Times journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, who wanted to provide a deep dive into the world of hedge funds and New York finance. On that level, the show continues to deliver, even if its inherent conflict -- about big money, and the ability of government to curb that influence -- takes on a different hue amid so many reminders that those forces are in alignment at least as often as they find themselves at odds.
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Thanks to Lewis and Giamatti "Billions" still possesses a fair amount of energy, as the two titans maneuver against each other -- essentially playing Monopoly, to use an old joke, with real buildings, and careers hanging in the balance.
By contrast, the awkward position in which that standoff placed Siff's character was perhaps the weakest aspect of season one and hasn't improved, frankly, as yet this time out.
Showtime is premiering "Billions" as part of a free-preview weekend, making the pay channel available to basic subscribers. While that sounds like a smart bet, for viewers wondering whether to invest their time in the series, even with its blue chip assets, the first few episodes make it look like less of a sure thing.
"Billions" premieres February 19 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.