Lunchtable TV Talk: The Affair and Ballers

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Sometimes inspiration for writing about the TV I love does not come easily. Sometimes, for some shows, no inspiration comes at all. There’s no way to know what will hit the spot and what won’t. For example, there are many shows I watch(ed), love(d) and would recommend, but unless I think of some particular angle that I feel I want to express, I will never bother to write specifically about them.

Mad Men is one of those shows. It was analyzed, torn apart, beloved, criticized and everything else you can do to a TV show from the comfort of your couch (by professionals and amateurs alike). I don’t have anything to add to that discussion, apart from noting how Don Draper seemed to be something like a drunken traveling handyman there near the end. (And I was able to note the semi-subtle red Coca-Cola thread sewing the final season together, but I only did that in order to compare and contrast it to another already-dead series about ad men, HAPPYish, which also got into the ring with the Coca-Cola theme.)

There are others. It might not be that they were revered and torn limb from limb and sucked dry of all their marrow. It might just be that I would not know what to add. The upcoming second season of Fargo counts among these. The first season was untouchable, and my rambling about it would not do it justice or be a very good use of my time. (But who am I kidding? Is any of this a good use of my time?) What about stuff like Boardwalk Empire? Slow, simmering, complex, an acquired taste, not for everyone… what could I really write that could give that epic its due? No, there is nothing. Maybe one day I will feel some great urge to “unpack” (one of those overused-of-late terms I hate, which seems to have seeped from academia into corporate jargon) Bobby Cannavale’s performance in Boardwalk or Boardwalk’s courageous and unusual choice of offing one of the leads early (setting the “no one is safe” tone early) or effusing about Michael K Williams in yet another unforgettable and iconic HBO role. But probably not.

In fact, writing about things I love is considerably more challenging than writing disparagingly about content that just does not make the cut. The more disappointing something is, the easier it is to excoriate.

And that’s how I reach my tale of watching The Affair, and my increasing hostility toward it. The only good thing about it: Richard Schiff. Seriously. Actually in the first season, which started off with some promise and a lot of positive buzz, Joshua Jackson stood out as both a good performance and as a good character. Every other character was so unlikable and selfish – and I mean everyone, right down to the main guy, Noah’s and his wife, Helen’s, kids – particularly the oldest daughter. Maybe the self-centered nature of man (and woman) is what the story is meant to be about. Every man for himself. And the actors in the roles play that selfishness and the slivers of perspective we get (when they point of view shifts from one character to another) to a T. I have read plenty of analysis about this show and its squandered potential, so I won’t bother in that vein.

I mostly wanted a reason to write that Richard Schiff commands the screen even when he only appears for two minutes. I mean seriously – I watched the show Ballers the other day just on the strength of his being in it. He is not even in it that much, but again, his presence elevated the show. And, oddly, because I did not go into Ballers with any expectations except maybe believing I would find the show stupid, I was pleasantly surprised (particularly in the episode in which Michael Cudlitz shows up… because, you know, Cudlitz always shows up. He’s almost as everywhere as the frighteningly omnipresent Tom Skerritt and still has plenty of time to increase his presence – and maybe join a ballet production – to reach Skerritt-like levels).

All I can say for these things – TV expectations, letdowns and surprises – is go figure.

HAPPYish endings

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HAPPYish took a while to grow on me, and as most entertainment media pointed out upon its debut, the world did not necessarily need another portrait of disaffected middle-aged-man at a crossroads. It didn’t always hit the mark but sometimes felt very satisfying, shining a light not just on middle-aged-man dissatisfaction but also on the disillusionment of moving away from one’s youthful dreams and clinging onto and valuing the important things you do find when you’re older and more mature… and realizing that even when you do stumble onto one or two of life’s few epiphanies, you are just as likely to forget and go on with your pettiness two minutes later. It also skewered the hollowness of the advertising industry.

In a reappraisal of the show’s first – and only, now that it has been canceled – season, I think I will miss it.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Bradley Whitford, TV’s Everywhere Man

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Thanks to my curiosity and love for connecting the dots, I discovered a recurring column on The AV Club website that features interviews with actors and pops questions to them about random roles they have played. I stumbled first onto the Bradley Whitford column because, while I had seen a steady Whitford presence on TV for years, lately he suddenly appeared everywhere in almost everything I was watching: the canceled-too-early Trophy Wife, the delightful and poignant Transparent, the acerbic and churlish HAPPYish, the hilarious Brooklyn Nine-Nine and satirical Alpha House. I don’t much need to highlight his presence in The West Wing or its short-lived Aaron Sorkin follow-up Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

A number of other actors turn up in these random role articles – some favorites, like Allison Janney – and others who turn up positively everywhere but whose real names elude me but whose faces show up everywhere. Bradley Whitford is not exactly one of those name-on-tip-of-tongue guys, especially because his roles, however small, hold such sway. His cynical realist role in HAPPYish, in particular, has been a perfect foil for Steve Coogan and exactly the counterbalance needed. Even in a guest role, such as playing Jake Peralta’s absent asshole father in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is winning. Same applies for Whitford’s role in Transparent. It’s not big, but he makes the memorable most of it. This is why I love Mr Whitford and hope he keeps popping up everywhere. (News flash: while I was writing this I happened to be watching the film CBGB – and who appears out of nowhere? Bradley Fucking Whitford! Was not expecting that. Or his Trophy Wife trophy wife, Malin Akerman as Debbie Harry…)

Coca-Cola is not life

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Coca-Cola has seized a lot of screen time in both the final season of Mad Men (ending its run tonight!) and in the debut season of HAPPYish; I’ve been, if not perplexed, perturbed by its prevalence. As if Coca-Cola does not have its hands wringing our necks at every turn with clever-as-fuck ad campaigns, product placement and brand ubiquity that is so deeply ingrained in our lives that we don’t even notice it and think it’s totally normal.

I had forgotten when I wrote about Coca-Cola woven into two of Sunday night’s TV offers that I recently was “upgraded” to a branded hotel room in Oslo – I don’t know if the room had a name, but I will call it the “Coca-Cola Life room”. It featured a small living room and a bedroom and a whole lot of Coca-Cola Life pictures and banners as well as a fridge filled with this bizarre Coca-Cola Life beverage – all gratis.

Coca-Cola is not life - hotel room Oslo

Coca-Cola is not life – hotel room Oslo

For those unfamiliar, Coca-Cola Life (this website is the ugliest thing I have ever seen Coke make) is Coke’s sort of new low-calorie drink. It has some actual sugar but is mostly sweetened with Stevia. I don’t think it’s been launched in the US yet but it’s not something I would go out looking for no matter where I am. I had noticed it in the stores in Sweden and wondered whether it was some kind of ill-advised cola-flavored energy drink. And when I ended up in a Coca-Cola Life branded room, I had more than enough time to read the label and taste the results. (Nothing to report – tastes like any other cola drink and did not really seem like a “diet” version of most soda.)

But you know what? Coca-Cola is not life. Duh. There’s something mystifying, sad and offensive about Coca-Cola taking a word as simple as “life” and co-opting it to sell tooth rot in a bottle.

Best part of the hotel room by the way – a weird drawer/cupboard with the toy hind-end of a big cat as handle.

big cat ass drawer handle

big cat ass drawer handle

Coca-Cola and “assholery”: Mad Men and HAPPYish

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Coca-Cola believes it taught us to sing. Or at least it believes it is so intrinsic to our lives that we won’t even notice its ubiquitous presence in our favorite TV shows. How pervasive Coca-Cola suddenly is in two TV shows that focus on the advertising industry: Mad Men and HAPPYish. If everyone in the world is an asshole, as the TV show HAPPYish posits, then ad men are the biggest assholes in the world, selling asshole ideas to a world of susceptible asshole sheep-herd consumers.

“In this toilet of a world, the asshole is king*.” Everyone loves the asshole.

“Your problem is that you think that assholes are some sort of anomaly, some sort of aberration. Nature is an asshole factory, my friend. If you exist, you’re an asshole*.”

Throughout the latter half of the final season of Mad Men, there have been multiple references to Coca-Cola, as present as Lucky Strike was to its first season. The references are subtle – talking about Coke like it is the holy grail of advertising, what all ad men aspire to. With only one episode left, it remains to be seen whether all these mentions lead somewhere or are just planted for the sake of talking about Coke. Lucky Strike’s dominance in season one, and the ad men’s urgent campaign to wipe out the rising tide of health warnings against smoking, foreshadowed a brave-faced Betty Draper Francis being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Do the constant references to Coke as Mad Men winds down – the pursuit of their business – foreshadow the oncoming proliferation of diabetes, obesity and other health ills that soon overtake America? Is Matthew Weiner painting a cautionary tale in broad strokes? The vices we desire are ultimately what will kill us, but there are awfully compelling, glossy ad campaigns that make these vices appear however ad men want them to look – seductive, sexy, wholesome, beautiful, “toasted” (Don Draper’s pitch to Lucky Strike in season one) or a harbinger of world peace (“I’d like to teach the world to sing/in perfect harmony… I’d like the buy the world a Coke…”). All in the consumerist pursuit of elusive happiness and using manipulative, asshole tactics to convince us that a sugar-filled drink can accomplish anything of the kind.

Quite a different show about advertising, HAPPYish started off pretty weak and is still far from perfect. But in episode four, it started to get better. In it, the ad team at the heart of the show is pitching Coca-Cola. Much less subtle and totally over-the-top, the episode began with showing a bunch of young ad interns a parody of the original Coca-Cola “I’d like to teach the world to sing” ad. The actual Coke pre-pitch turns out to be a slap in the face to the young, Swedish upstarts trying to overtake the agency with their rejection of traditional ad campaign tactics. Oh the Swenglish sounds, spewing such corporate marketing psychobabble and insanity! One of the Swedish duo, Gottfried, exclaims, “We don’t need campaigns any more. It’s one smart idea, and it changes the world, ok? We need ideation! We need social integration. We needs events, we need moments… it wasn’t a war that started the Egyptian revolution, it was fucking Facebook.”

The show’s main character, Steve Coogan’s Thom Payne replies, “And the Egyptian revolutionaries.”

Bradley Whitford, the manager of the agency, grows more irate: “I don’t think Egypt is the best case study for the long-term effectiveness of social media.”

Gottfried: “It’s like you told me when we first met about Al Qaeda. They’re a great brand but what makes them a great brand? They don’t make campaigns – they make events: 9/11, 7/7, Charlie Hebdo…” ?!

Whitford’s Jonathan exclaims in angry exasperation: “THIS IS COCA-fucking-COLA! They couldn’t be less insurgent-like if they fucking tried!*”

The idiotic Swedish upstart interjects his “end of campaigns” BS and tries to tell Coke they can be an insurgent. After the Swedish wunderkind makes an ass of himself pitching the death of advertising, Bradley Whitford’s Jonathan jumps in to pitch Coca-Cola on a level it will understand: domination… in the form of the programmed, hyperdetailed, 600+ page 1933 Nazi organization brand bible: “This is what Coke needs” – the book that, Jonathan claims, makes Mein Kampf look like child’s play. He urges them to embrace global dominance the way the Nazis did – as no brand has ever been as powerful as the Nazi brand, not even Coke. “Domination is the same goal no matter what you’re selling. Coca-Cola is not a brand: it’s an uber-brand; it’s a movement that deserves a fanatical devotion*.”

HAPPYish’s antihero, Payne, ends up declaring, after the Coca-Cola pitch nightmare and a conversation about how society has cast philosophy and insight aside to look for wisdom in advertising and in retail therapy (“It’s not hard to be a genius in a world that looks to shopping bags for insights.”): “If I hadn’t met Lee (Payne’s wife), it wouldn’t be funny at all. We’re the only ones on earth that the other one can stand. Maybe that’s all you can ask for on this planet. One non-asshole. After all, the pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness. You know who said that? LuLu Fucking Lemon. Here on planet asshole, the shopping bag knows all.”

Mad Men and its revelation-via-ad-campaign has echoed these same reflections, questions and explorations in its characters’ pursuit of happiness. It is a subtler, quieter evaluation of happiness and man’s wants in life. But it is further evidence of what HAPPYish hammered home – everyone is an asshole, which has been proven time and again in seven seasons of Mad Men.

*All quotes from season 1, episode 4 of Showtime’s HAPPYish

Lunchtable TV talk – HAPPYish: “Everyone’s f—ed and they don’t even know…”

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Apparently, HAPPYish on Showtime was meant to be a vehicle for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s boundless talents before his untimely death. The usually entertaining (in that obnoxious, this-rubs-me-the-wrong-way-but-I’m-still-laughing manner) Steve Coogan stepped in.

I don’t think it’s Coogan’s fault that the material feels tired, overworked, too much overprivileged middle-aged man at odds with the changing world. Coogan’s character is a senior ad exec, and much like Don Draper in Mad Men, he finds that the changing media landscape and its youth-oriented sensibilities seem to be moving on without him – even if those movements are actually illogical, loss-making bullshit. Coogan is the voice of reason but no one is listening. He’s struck by malaise – unable to be effective at work and unable to be particularly effective in his marriage. He can’t sexually perform, he tells his eager wife (Kathryn Hahn) that Prozac has robbed him of his libido but without Prozac he’d basically be horny but a miserable prick. The first episode makes Hahn seem like she is not able to say much aside from some variation of, “Are we gonna fuck (or not)?” And we were led to believe that men had the one-track minds.

The second episode focused more on Hahn’s troubled relationship with her unseen mother and her internal struggle about whether or not she should return a giant package her mother sent for her grandson. Somehow the parental conflict we don’t see just feels petty and Hahn’s character petulant and self-indulgent because we don’t really know the context. I normally like Hahn (she’s great in both Parks and Recreation and Transparent) but the writing and story here does not suit Hahn and seemingly does not suit anyone who is in this show – and there are a lot of names popping up, but everyone seems awkward.

Part of the problem, apart from trying too hard, is that we have little pieces of this same show already done better in other shows. We have the ad man-out-of-time in Mad Men. We have the hilarious parody of an industry that often seems to be blowing itself and praising its own insular nature at the expense of reality in Silicon Valley. We have the married-life rut and suburban ennui done to perfection in Togetherness. Like most critics, I think we don’t need another TV show about a dissatisfied but mostly spoiled middle-aged white dude complaining about everything he doesn’t have.

Do yourself a favor and watch those shows – not this one.

“Everyone’s fucked and they don’t even know…”