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How TV Shows Use Food to Explain Their Characters

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As explained by ‘Billions’ creator Brian Koppelman

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David Chang and Damien Lewis at Momofuku Ko
Facebook / Momofuku

On screen, restaurants can tell audiences a whole lot more about characters besides their favorite foods. It’s a fact that is made eminently clear in the show Billions. The Showtime series, which stars Damien Lewis as a billionaire hedge fund manager and Paul Giamatti as the U.S. Attorney trying to take him down, frequently finds its characters dining out in New York City. On a recent episode of the Eater Upsell, co-creator of Billions Brian Koppelman explained to hosts Helen Rosner and Greg Morabito what the audience can learn by paying attention to the restaurants featured in Billions.

For example, the first time the audience meets Lewis’s character Bobby Axelrod, he indulges in a slice of pizza at a classic New York slice joint, one that he has been going to since childhood. The choice is deliberate. “That scene came out of a conversation in the writers' room about how to connect with who Axe really is as a person, separate from who he is in business,” Koppelman says.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Koppelman uses restaurants to connote extreme wealth. In a scene from Season 2, Momofuku chef David Chang, appearing as himself, serves Axelrod and an associate a private dinner at Momofuku Ko. “There's a lot of stuff that [scene] can tell you, about how the New York food world works, what Bobby Axelrod's place in New York City is, what he's trying to show the guy that he's taking to dinner,” Koppelman explains.

Axelrod’s wealth and power mean a private dinner from one of New York City’s most famous chefs (within the television show’s universe as well as in real life) isn’t out of reach. “The world that those two people live in is such that the two of them maybe met at somebody else's table one night, and developed some sort of relationship, and maybe that guy gave a chef his plane to use for a weekend, and the chef said, ‘Anytime you want,’” Koppelman adds. “Any of that stuff could have happened that result in the guy sitting there alone at Ko.”

These analyses may be straightforward, but the most recent season of Billions also included a scene that required slightly more food knowledge to dissect. Wags, Axelrod’s right hand man played by David Costabile, dines at New York’s Sushi Nakazawa, the omakase counter run by Daisuke Nakazawa, a protege of documentary-famous Jiro Ono. While there, Wags witnesses some suited-up finance bros wrapping their sushi in ginger and drowning it in soy sauce. He breaks from conversing with the chef in Japanese to point out their error. In the midst of an expletive-filled rant he tells them, “This man is an artist. He had to spend 10 years learning how to make the tamago.”

With this context, the power dynamics at play in the scene become clear. “If you're watching the show and you don't know that stuff, it's still great to see a guy freak out that someone's eating sushi wrong, and then you go, ‘Is this guy the asshole, or is that guy the asshole?’,” Koppelman says. “If you know that backstory, it's really clear who the asshole is.”

Hear the complete interview with Brian Koppelman as he talks about spreading the word on his favorite restaurants, engaging with chefs, and why screenwriting is his favorite form of self expression. Subscribe to the Eater Upsell on iTunes, or listen on Soundcloud. You can also get the entire archive of episodes   right here on Eater.

All Episodes of the Eater Upsell [E]
• The Eater Upsell: Brian Koppelman [iTunes | Spotify | Art19]

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