Billions

I’ve been watching this show obsessively for the last week. Mostly I’m thinking things like: is Damien Lewis hot? Sometimes yes, sometimes no (those of you of a certain age will recall exactly which Seinfeld episode this brings to mind).

See what I mean?

But I’m *also* thinking about why this show is so pleasurable—for me and for the characters, all of whom are deeply attracted to the game of knowing and being known. I won’t ruin the show for those who haven’t seen it, but basically it’s about how well people can intuit each other. It’s about big money and crime and two very different men (who are the same at heart—shocking) squared off in a battle for moral supremacy and bragging rights. They spar with their wits. They try to outplay each other. And, as with most games, success usually depends on how well each can see into the other’s mind. Fair enough. Thing is, everyone in this show operates in the same atmosphere. The performance coach, the entrepreneurs, the law and order guys; and the only people who aren’t playing this game are the rubes, the idiots, the naifs.

Because I have watched so many episodes in a short period of time, the show’s tics are clear. In every episode, one person gleans wisdom about how to play the game from a seemingly unrelated remark someone else makes. Meantime, at least two people have a conversation in which one supplants the other’s sentiments with her own theory of what the person really means. And in that moment, the person who is unmasked seems to shine brightly with delight because it wouldn’t be a game if no one ever got exposed. For me, as a viewer, I love these moments, too. I love to see these guys denude each other’s feelings and motives. The question is: why?

Why is it enjoyable to see people exposed? I don’t mean humiliated (I actually cannot stand this) so much as exfoliated. To be clear, I’m not just talking about the bad guys being unmasked. I’m talking about even tiny little exchanges like: a former employee’s boss comes to see her. They get into a small argument. He says, “I’ve hired someone new. He’s doing great.” She says, “If that were true, you wouldn’t be here.” Pleasure! She saw right through him and called him out. And so maybe the pleasure here isn’t about her understanding what he’s really about so much as a) her certainty and b) her ability to say so out loud.

Imagine if we all lived this way? Usually when I talk to someone, I’m not trolling for what they *really* mean (I’m a naif, apparently). But when I do, I definitely do not feel certain I know what’s under there. I can speculate, play it out, but mostly I don’t know, and even the act of trying to figure it out is tinged with enough cynicism to make me regret trying. But even if I *am* certain, am I really in a position to say so out loud? In friendships and romance, how many times do you get the green light to do this? After all, there’s a kind of hostility here, right? Under the mantle of just trying to get people to be honest with themselves, you are also enjoying the forensics of it all. The power and superiority. Though I imagine it gets old pretty quick. Which is maybe why I’m getting tired of this show, as well. Good thing tonight’s the Super Bowl, in which a lot of what I’ve just described will play out on the gridiron. Go, Chiefs.