Spoiler alert! This post contains details from Sunday’s Showtime season premiere, which is streaming now.
Mike “Wags” Wagner (David Costabile) survives his minor heart attack after riding a Peloton with his favorite instructor on the financial drama. The incident mirrors December’s premiere of HBO’s “Sex and the City” reboot “And Just Like That … ” which depicted Carrie’s husband, Mr. Big (Chris Noth), dying of a heart attack following his 1,000th Peloton ride.
Showtime creators tell USA TODAY that Wags’ Peloton plot point was a coincidence, created without any knowledge of the strangely similar HBO storyline.
“That was all in the show, written a year ago and shot in April,” says “Billions” producer and co-creator Brian Koppelman.
But after “And Just Like That…” aired, “our phones blew up from everyone on the show texting each other,” says Koppelman. “So all we did different was add one line.”
The often-meta drama “Billions” rolled the cameras to show a triumphant Wags returning to applause from his relieved office workers and announcing, “I’m not going out like Mr. Big.”
“It would be completely out of our character not to take a swing,” executive producer Beth Schacter says. “It’s too good. We’re going to make the joke.”
‘And Just Like That…” heart attack:Peloton created video response, and then pulled it
Peloton released a statement to USA TODAY about the “Billions” episode:
“We get why these fictional TV shows would want to include a brand that people love to talk about, but Showtime’s use of Peloton’s Bike+ and reference to a Peloton Instructor was not a brand, product, or instructor placement, and we did not agree for our brand and IP to be used on this show or provide any equipment. As referenced by the show itself, there are strong benefits of cardio-vascular exercise to help people lead long, happy lives.”
Peloton addressed the national discussion of Mr. Big’s heart attack by creating a humorous video showing Noth alive and sitting by the fire with his favorite Peloton instructor. The advertisement was pulled after two women told “The Hollywood Reporter” that Noth sexually assaulted them. Noth denied the allegations.
‘Billions’ hopes to cash in without Bobby Axelrod
The Season 6 premiere is the first without brash billionaire Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis), last seen in October’s Season 5 finale escaping to Switzerland to avoid being arrested by his forever rival, New York Attorney General Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti).
Showrunners had time to set up Lewis’ departure after the British actor (“Homeland”) signaled he would not renew his five-season “Billions” contract. The professional decision came amid personal issues, as the London-based Lewis’ wife, actress Helen McCrory, died after a cancer battle last April.
“We understood the factors in (Lewis’) life and the need to be with his family,” says Koppelman. “So this change was years in the making, giving us time to introduce another central character.”
Corey Stoll’s Mike Prince emerged in Season 5 as a worthy adversary, ultimately pivotal in ousting his rival Axe and taking over Axe Capitol.
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Prince continues to sit in Axe’s chair even after workers knock the name “Axe Capital” from the wall (to replace it with “Michael Prince Capital”). The chair is a symbol of the bigger-than-life drama and egos around hedge-fund billionaires and powerful prosecutorial foes.
“We saw these guys as sort of Shakespearean kings,” says executive producer and co-creator David Levien. “It’s not a literal throne, but there’s something about the seat of power for the guy who deposed the prior ruler that we hew to. We wanted to change things up on the show, but we wanted certain things to have continuity.”
Prince is modeled on a new brand of billionaire different than the type Axe represented, seemingly just consumed with acquiring wealth.
“We’ve noticed that now, many bring a spirit of ‘changing the world for the better,’ trying to celebrate their wealth and power in a way that’s good for everyone. That’s their claim,” says Koppelman. “We’re prosecuting the show on the question: Is that a legitimate claim, or just another wrapping paper for the same narcissistic, nihilistic billionaire?”
Giamatti’s Rhoades, who takes a sabbatical on an upstate New York farm after failing to arrest Axelrod in Season 5, is energized by what he sees as a wolf in principled clothing.
“He recognizes that Prince thinks he’s a good guy,” says Schacter. “But Chuck believes anyone that thinks they can be a billionaire and also good is inherently evil.”
No character is safe in the new world
Prince publicly cleans house after his predecessor’s rule-flaunting ways in the season premiere. Wags, Axe’s former right-hand man, survives his heart attack, but still contemplates his own career and a potential $80 million payout. Heavy hitters Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) and Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) seek their path in the treacherous new environment.
There isn’t an Axelrod appearance, or even a call from Switzerland, in the premiere or the entire season. “I don’t want to create any false expectation, Damian is not in Season 6,” Koppelman says. “But the door is left wide for Bobby Axelrod to appear at some point.”
Costabile is optimistic the series will continue to flourish, even with Axelrod’s departure.
“We hope the audience trusts us; we have not misled them to this point. The sixth season is not going to disappoint,” says Costabile. “Just because there’s one character less doesn’t mean the storytelling, the intrigue, the deep bench that lives in this world are gone, too. We make that promise, and we keep it well.”