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Rhodes, Axelrod, and Hegel

Despite my constant evangelizing for Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy, I’ve always found it significantly easier to write television comedy than drama. Which is a shame, because I’m incredibly interested in both genres. But whenever I try and write dramatic pilots, they come across as unfocused and meandering. That was, until I started reading Hegel.

Don’t worry. Before you stop reading, I promise I won’t bore you with philosophy (mainly because I don’t know any). I’m a voracious reader, but philosophy and Civil War history are the two subjects I’ve decided to avoid until I’m middle aged (I need something to look forward to). But in one of my advanced theatre classes, we read an obscure essay by the German philosopher on the topic of playwriting, and it has changed the way I look at TV dramas.

He says that every drama must consist of two individuals each with a clearly defined goal, that they believe is ethical, but are completely at odds with one another. All this to say, the formula for a good tragedy is two people with opposite goals, who both think they are trying to do the right thing.

This is obviously an oversimplification (as all theory is), but it makes it incredibly easy to understand what makes great scripts work. Anytime you pair two equal but opposite forces, you get something incredibly entertaining. And nothing, I mean nothing, does this as well as Showtime’s Billions.

Anyone who knows me has had their ear bent about Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s show more than a few times. The finance drama, which centers around a rivalry between a billionaire and the U.S. Attorney trying to prosecute him, consistently does the impossible: making hedge funds cool. It’s one thing to make a great show about a mob boss who sees a therapist, or a teacher who starts dealing drugs…but making an equally exciting show set in the dry world of finance is quite an achievement.

Billions, whose fourth season premiered on Sunday, is the ultimate Hegelian tragedy. Hedge fund king Bobby Axelrod and ruthless prosecutor Chuck Rhodes are equally clever, vengeful, and willing to do anything to achieve their goals. They both believe that they are in the right, which justifies any of their actions. They’re evenly matched, but use different tactics, and their goals (to take down the other man at any cost) are equal but opposite.

This formula is a big part of why seasons 1-3 are some of the best television ever produced, in my humble opinion. But nothing lasts forever, and it looks like season 4 is going to be even better because it blatantly ignores said formula. Very mild spoilers to follow…nothing that wasn’t in the trailer, but consider yourself warned.

The showrunners of Billions seem to know that, just like in business, you start dying when you stop growing. So they completely changed the premise of the show, and had Rhodes and Axelrod team up. A show that has previously been defined by two men’s bitter rivalry now follows them working together to destroy mutual enemies. It’s a brilliant move, and I for one can’t wait to see where it goes.

From a TV writing standpoint, there’s a lesson to be learned here. I don’t know if the show was based on Hegel or not, but it clearly follows the rules at first. Seasons one and two are classically structured, and is no less thrilling because of that. It’s a reminder that rules exist for a reason. The new season is equally riveting because it’s completely ignoring those rules. Both approaches are valid, and can lead to success on their own. But combine them, as Billions has, and you can create something incredibly special.

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Real life is messy, and drama is a shaped version of real life.
— Simon Beaufoy
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