National Post (Latest Edition)
The gluttonous appetite of BILLIONS
The most compelling food show on television isn’t a food show at all
Ionce spent a summer working as a production assistant for a television show that filmed in downtown Toronto. It was mid July, and we were shooting a dinner scene supposedly set somewhere in Tuscany (but actually filmed in the parking lot of an abandoned public swimming pool). The art department had decorated the set with loaves of soft, goldencrusted bread, bottles of red wine housed in traditional fiasco baskets and plates of red sauced lasagna. As each take progressed, the latter began to bake under the unrelenting sun. I watched the actors grow pale as the director demanded “more sauce” on the sweaty lasagna, moving chunks of pasta around their plates while pretending to eat.
Only afterwards, when tasked with the glamorous production assistant job of scrubbing the plates clean in the pool’s public bathroom, did I understand why: the lasagna had the same colour and texture as a pile of used rubber Band-Aids.
Most food on television is like this. Instead of offering something remotely edible, meals are often shoehorned into plot lines as a last-ditch effort to ground the characters in some sense of reality. Real people have to eat, so characters should have to pretend to eat too. The reasoning is why it’s all too common to see actors in breakfast scenes hovering over full plates of Belgian waffles, eggs and crisp bacon like flying drones.
“Why don’t they eat any of it?” you ask yourself. Because, as it turns out, the food is disgusting.
This never happens on Billions, though.
The show, which stars Damien Lewis as billionaire hedge fund manager Robert “Bobby” Axelrod and Paul Giamatti as U.S. Attorney General Charles “Chuck” Rhoades Jr., revolves around the two leads battling it out in a legal cat and mouse game, as the attorney general tries to prosecute the fund manager for white collar crimes. But while co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien did not set out to create a food show, they employ food as a central character throughout the show’s three seasons.
The characters on Billions love to eat. When we first meet Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, he is spending his morning indulging in two slices of cheese pizza at his favourite no-frills childhood pizzeria. It’s the same pizza that he got for free when he couldn’t afford a slice as a child, and it seems to make him happier than any billion-dollar trade. He offers to partner with the owner, who is being pushed out of the neighbourhood by rising rents, saying he’ll cover the overages himself so that the pizzeria can stay in business.
“I want to continue being a good customer,” Axe explains.
From the very beginning, food helps us identify with the hedge fund billionaire. Grinning over a slice of pizza, he doesn’t seem like a heartless robot. Instead he is a rags to riches success story who wants nothing more than to use his extreme wealth for good.
Later in season two, when Axe is in the throes of abusing his power to bankrupt Chuck and his father with an elaborate set up involving an IPO, we see him spooning hundreds of dollars worth of caviar onto slices of pizza for him and his wife Lara, played by Malin Ackerman.
“Still is better than anchovies,” Lara says.
“That’s for f--kin sure,” he confirms.
The meal is the same he and Lara shared on their first date. In recreating it, Axe is attempting to repair their broken relationship. But while the gesture may seem simple, it severs our ability to root for Axe. The mountains of caviar act as a not-so-subtle reminder that he is not, and never will be, like us. It distances his character from the one who used to go to the neighbourhood pizzeria as a needy child.
Meanwhile, after struggling with an inferiority complex in his marriage and his position as Attorney General, Chuck Jr. is seen breaking his diet as he devours a bursting pastrami sandwich at Mile End Delicatessen in NoHo. Midway through the meal, he tears off some of the meat with his fingers and dunks it in the poutine with his bare hands, stuffing it into his mouth like a starved man. He is starved, of course, but the meal is the first time we’ve seen him admit it.
But blatant character development is only the beginning of what food has come to mean on the show. The rest of the dining moments demand a pre-existing level of culinary knowledge to fully understand. Unlike the Food Network, where viewers are coddled and every ingredient is meticulously explained, the learning curve on Billions is often steep.
When Mike “Wags” Wagner, Axelrod’s right hand man and the show’s biggest degenerate (known almost exclusively for his chronic yelling, drug habit and pointy mustache that makes him look like the devil incarnate), visits Sushi Nakazawa, he loses his temper at a group of finance bros. It isn’t explained in the episode, but the restaurant is an omakase counter run by Daisuke Nakazawa, the former apprentice of sushi master Jiro Ono of Jiro Dreams of Sushi fame. The bros appear unfazed by this, shouting into a cellphone and covering the already perfect nigiri in ginger and soy sauce – the ultimate sushi faux pas.
“This man is an artist,” Wags bursts. “He had to spend 10 years learning how to make the tamago – the egg. The egg! Your expense accounts don’t entitle you to f--k his art up the ass.”
The outburst appears to be in line with the rest of Wags’s aggressive behaviour. But Wags is referencing the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, in which Nakazawa is shown to take over 200 attempts before making tamago correctly. When he finally achieves the perfect tamago, his success prompts Jiro to call him shokunin – a highly prized title used only to refer to craftsmen on the noble pursuit of perfection. Nakazawa is so happy he cries.
Those who have seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi know that the exchange is a rare display of Wags’s moral values. For once, the man is shown to care about something beyond himself. “Sorry you saw that,” Wags says to his dinner guest afterwards. “It was a bit too revealing.”
Later in season three, after Axe has decided to accept a plea bargain and go to jail, he hires chef Wylie Dufresne to prepare ortolan, or illegal songbirds drowned whole in argamac, for his last supper. Dufresne might not be as famous as chefs like David Chang or Daniel Boulud (who both make guest appearances in the series), but his presence signifies insider knowledge of New York’s food scene in a way that few others could. When his restaurant wd~50 was open on the Lower East Side, it was regarded in chef circles as among the most influential restaurants in the world.
Axe eats the tiny bird in silence with Wags and Dufresne, with white napkins draped ceremoniously over their heads. He licks his fingers in appreciation when he’s finished.
“Got anymore?” Wags asks. “I’m still a little peckish.”
“You know what they say about ortolan. One is bliss; two is gluttony,” Dufresne replies.
Wags proceeds to demand a third. We never see the men eat more than one ortolan each, but the episode is called The Third Ortolan, suggesting that they are about to discover what lies beyond gluttony. Any viewer can piece this information together, but you have to know about Dufresne and ortolan to fully grasp the significance of the meal. More than any scene before it, the ortolan cements Axe and Wags as the ultimate New York insiders.
We consume identity through food. Sipping a vibrant green matcha latte or devouring a cheeseburger tells the world something about your values. But while food programming has flourished, few shows have bothered to examine this critical role that food plays in our lives. Billions goes two steps further, offering an inside baseball tour through the upper echelons of New York gastronomy where there is always an extra nugget of truth waiting to be discovered, if you only know where to look.
The end result makes even the best cooking shows seem comparably one-dimensional. In fact, the most compelling food show on television isn’t a food show at all.