Not to say TV loves the eccentric lives of billionaires, but two dramas about them will air opposite each other Sunday: “Trust,” an FX series that’s the second iteration in the last four months of oil magnate J. Paul Getty’s life; and “Billions,” the Showtime series about a hedge fund manager at war with New York’s U.S. attorney.
Although one show is based on fact and the other is reality-inspired fiction, they share a basic footprint in examining the corrupting influence of wealth, with “Billions” especially focused on the clash between private influence and those wielding public levers of power.
Inevitably, “Trust” will be compared to “All the Money in the World,” the recent Ridley Scott movie about the kidnapping of Getty’s grandson that became more memorable when Christopher Plummer was enlisted as a last-minute replacement for scandal-tarred Kevin Spacey.
The series format, however, allows for a slow-motion look at the story that doesn’t necessarily benefit the telling, examining what happened from a number of different characters’ perspectives – an idea that proves less enticing than that sounds.
The first hour is considerably better than the next two, focusing on Getty, played with imperial splendor by Donald Sutherland. As the show begins, his son’s suicide has left a void in Getty’s succession plans, at the precise moment when grandson John Paul Getty III (Harris Dickinson) waltzes back into his life.
Mostly, Getty surrounds himself with hangers-on and sycophants, prodding what amounts to his royal court to debate who loves him the most. Getty, meanwhile, rages about his “feckless progeny,” especially compared to those bearing the names of other industrial titans, like Joe Kennedy.
Unfortunately, “Trust” doesn’t compound its interest over subsequent hours, which chronicle Paul’s kidnapping, and the elder Getty – unwilling to pay “a single, solitary cent” in ransom – dispatching security chief Fletcher Chase (Brendan Fraser) to seek his release. Part of the problem involves having Fraser speak directly to the camera, perhaps intended to be more “Fargo”-esque, but which winds up feeling just plain goofy.
“Trust” does boast a strong cast – including Hilary Swank as Getty’s daughter in law, little used in the early going – and it’s interesting to see how it differs from “All the Money in the World.” In tandem, they provide an example of how writers can work from the same basic set of facts and conjure two somewhat disparate treatments.
Where “Trust” yields diminishing returns, “Billions” remains a shrewd investment, having ended its second season with a scintillating twist on the central cat-and-mouse game, and picking up pretty seamlessly where that left off.
Without giving anything away, billionaire trader Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) has been outmaneuvered by ambitious attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), putting his company’s future at risk. Still, Axelrod isn’t lacking for resources, and despite having struck a blow against Axelrod – at the expense of betraying those closest to him – Rhoades isn’t out of the woods either, with a shift in the regulatory climate among the potential challenges he faces.
Once again, “Billions” distinguishes itself as an extremely smart, high-stakes chess match, where the principals play Monopoly with real buildings, and the combatants are so ruthlessly determined to win that they’re blinded to, or simply ignore, the collateral damage.
Both shows offer glimpses into lives of wealth and privilege, where money enables the principals to indulge their darkest fantasies but doesn’t necessarily buy happiness or contentment.
Even so, when it comes to dramatizing the lifestyles of the filthy rich, the one-two punch provided by “Trust” and “Billions” is a reminder that the ongoing fascination remains one of TV’s most renewable resources.
“Trust” and “Billions” season 3 premiere on March 25 at 10 p.m. on FX and Showtime, respectively.