Situated in worlds of politics and privilege, power and corruption, “Billions” and “The Good Fight” each play to top-of-mind liberal concerns in the Trump era. Yet the Showtime series feels more compelling by tangentially making its case, whereas the CBS All Access drama loses something by leaning directly into an anti-Trump stance, to the point of bashing the viewer over the head with it.
“Billions” is embarking on its fourth season, while “The Good Wife” spinoff begins its third. In essence, the “Billions” finale shuffled the show’s structure and loyalties, creating parallel battles for power while turning one-time adversaries Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis), the billionaire hedge fund manager, and former U.S. attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) into unlikely if slightly wary allies.
The new dynamic pits Axe against his former protégé Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon), in a high-stakes chess match that has seen Taylor enter into an alliance with a ruthless Russian oligarch, toothily played by John Malkovich. As for Chuck, his efforts to regain his perch lead him into politics, squaring off against his own former deputy (Toby Leonard Moore) as well as others in the process.
“Billions” is a brutal, seamy world of leverage, where “What have you done for me lately?” is the prevailing mantra and squeezing favors out of people is a practiced art. Everything about the show is juicy – starting with the key performances – and its sense of the current political moment is savvy without needing to be especially specific.
The writing produces some prescient flourishes, such as one of the characters being faced with what amounts to blackmail, in a story arc that can’t help but bring to mind how Amazon’s Jeff Bezos handled his recent run-in with the National Enquirer’s parent company.
Whatever else the series has to say about the current times and national mood, “Billions” works because the focus remains steadfastly on the characters. Occasionally funny and frequently profane, it provides commentary without being heavy-handed, and escapism by gliding through the serialized jockeying for power and advantage against a decadent backdrop of the lifestyles of the .001-percent bracket.
“The Good Fight,” by contrast, is also smart, but in its new season veers so far toward reality – into what’s basically a real-time version of historical fiction, mixing actual people with fictional ones – as to distract from its central storylines.
Set in a high-powered law firm, the new season finds attorney Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) again dealing with a woman who claims to have had an affair with President Trump, while another subplot – which discretely unfolds off screen – relates to the president’s sons, Don Jr. and Eric.
Separately, Diane begins actively working with a “resistance” group, while harboring doubts about its tactics. There’s also a strong sexual-harassment storyline, and a trial that involves the murder of a journalist, making a point about the hostile environment in which “reporters are being targeted by protestors all over the world.”
Producers Robert and Michelle King have always dealt with hot-button issues through their courtroom drama, and they clearly feel liberated by this premium-TV platform. That includes dropping in amusing little animated interstitials each week, explaining things like nondisclosure agreements, the late Roy Cohn and online troll farms via what amounts to a jaded form of “Schoolhouse Rock.”
The balancing act, however, occasionally goes haywire, invading reality in a manner that at best risks becoming too cute for its own good, and at worst borders on self-indulgence.
The show remains impeccably cast, and there are wonderful moments, such as Lucca (Cush Jumbo) wrestling with the vagaries of motherhood. A new player also includes the always-welcome addition of Michael Sheen as a positively bonkers and amoral defense attorney, who clashes with the firm’s Maia, played by Rose Leslie.
The distinction between these two premium shows, both airing on CBS-owned services, ultimately provides a useful lesson for dramatists in this polarized age. Because even if you support what the characters in “The Good Fight” are fighting for, when the satirical flourishes start to eclipse the drama, it’s not an especially good look.
“The Good Fight” returns March 14 on CBS All Access. “Billions” returns March 17 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.