My wife and I have been watching this Showtime show called Billions for the last couple of years now and I always knew it made me hungry. If you don’t know the show, it stars Paul Giamatti (Sideways) and Damian Lewis (Band of Brothers). It’s a sometimes cheesy, cat-mouse procedural type of drama that peels back the gamesmanship in layers of the supposed political and wealthy elite of America and more specifically New York City. Giamatti plays Chuck Rhoades, U.S. Attorney, an intellectual hell-bent on nailing Bobby Axelrod, “t-shirt billionaire” played by Lewis, to the wall for his ability to do whatever the hell he wants on account of his billions earned nefariously according to Chuck. Chuck is a sort of a Plato’s Republic type of moral stickler with a wicked streak of justified Machiavellianism. Bobby Axelrod comes from the streets and seems more morally repugnant than Rhoades in many instances–but by the end of a few episodes it will be clear to you, both men are fueled by their greed and ambition and struggle equally to deny their appetites according to a rather subjective and situational sense of right and wrong. We got hooked on Billions just as Homeland was drawing down and we were deeply enthralled in Ray Donavan binges. While Ray Donavan has a similar element of voyeuristic how-do-things-work-behind-the-curtain-for-the-uber-rich element, it doesn’t make me hungry. It does make me thirsty for Irish whiskey, but it doesn’t signal belly pangs or Pavlovian salivary responses like Billions. Let me explain…
Now I was actually pretty slow to end up at the conclusion that Billions contributes to my calorie surpluses. Full disclosure: I didn’t make the connection that Billions is the best food show on TV until Season 3. This despite the fact that in Season 1 my wife and I had a discussion about the Shake Shack appearance in Episode 4. Katz’s Delicatessen shows up in Season 2, so does Jiro Dreams of Sushi protege Chef Nakazawa. The hits keep coming… and I keep eating. Poke from a food truck. Dave Chang “carpet-bombing” Axelrod with food at Momofuku. And then Rhoades slams roast beef into poutine with famished fervor at one point. But it wasn’t until Season 3 when I started to think, this is making me so hungry… And not for power. At one point, a wealthy political bedfellow eats deep-fried pig ears at a steak house with Rhoades and a few episodes later Axelrod and his COO, “Wags”, don napkins over their heads to feast on some delectable and cruelly harvested bird called Ortolan (prepared by Chef Wylie Dusfresne). So heinous and inhumane a dish, it’s become outlawed. I actually thought: I’m going to break the story of Billions being a foodie show. Then I Googled “billions and food” to research if anyone had cataloged this pop-culture Epicurean phenomenon, or was I the first to notice? Ha. I’m apparently the last to notice.
10 or 15 great articles are out there about Billions all analyzing connections between food and status, restaurants and food as currency, privilege meaning you can get a table anywhere anytime, appetites of the powerful, and on and on. Turns out the mainstream consensus is that Billions is as much about food as it is about the situational ethics and subjective morality of society’s upper echelon. On the surface Billions is about the compromised ‘ruler class’. It’s about the depravity and pettiness of America’s ‘philosopher kings’. Until you get the food in there. I think the food levels the playing field. It’s really a device that humanizes the character’s conflicts. Axelrod loves foldable NY pizza as much as Rhoades loves cheap looking hotel pastries on a tray in his office or donuts from a food truck in Season 1. The food is a reminder that we’re all compromised. We’re all entangled somehow. Speaking of situational ethics, I’m against cruelty to animals. But during the Ortolan scene, I couldn’t help think about the foie gras I ate at Denver’s Euclid Hall once. How delicious it was. How I’d probably eat it again if given the chance. How I’d love to eat one of those birds with Wags and Axe–and let its “hot juices rush out down my gullet” as Wags intriguingly put it.
Here are the best pieces I found about food in Billions:
Then the most researched, most comprehensive–we’ll call it the compendium on the subject is by a blogger who’s really into Damian Lewis. It’s a fan blog (Fan Fun with Damian Lewis: Musings About the Actor and the Characters He Brings to Life) that catalogs, by episode, each and every thing eaten on the show–including Yelp reviews. It’s a masterpiece partly informed by the show creators.