Lunchtable TV Talk: Billions

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We got rid of Nicholas Brody in Homeland, which could not have come sooner. It saved Homeland, and in exchange, we got Damian Lewis as self-made billionaire and financial wizard/criminal Bobby Axelrod in Billions. (FYI: Lewis is okay, but he is the least interesting thing about the show.) Is Billions great, on par with lauded fare like Mad Men or Breaking Bad? No. But is it interesting? Yeah, more than marginally. We get Malin Åkerman, who was so mercilessly set adrift after Trophy Wife was canceled, and she is unexpectedly fantastic as Lara, the bitchy, cutthroat, scheming, fiercely loyal wife of Bobby. We also get doses of Maggie Siff, who is always great (Mad Men, Nip/Tuck, Sons of Anarchy), as Wendy Rhoades, the person who is actually closest to Bobby, who has worked for him for an eternity and kept him “sane”, and who happens to be (improbably) married to the man who has made it his life’s mission to destroy Bobby. That man is US Attorney Chuck Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti, who is also always great, especially because he does fundamentally unlikable and complicated so well. His role here is no different, even if his character’s more stubborn than a dog with a bone – so hellbent on some kind of twisted sense of justice that he will let it destroy his marriage, his peace of mind, possibly his career and sanity, taking along with it his entire life and everything he values (taking a page from Les Misérables’s Inspector Javert, chasing this “villain” for his entire life – villain or no, the moral of the story – since there always is one – is that he only hurts himself in his dogged and endless pursuit).

There are other stories, characters, actors here, but there four form the real core of the show, what drives it forward and what keeps me watching. The rivalry between Bobby and Chuck – the stupid bravado driving both forward with what seem petty motivations in many cases, and the damage this does to everyone around them – from colleagues and employees to their families and loved ones – is the real driving force of the show. Also why I will continue to consume another season when it returns.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Feed the Beast

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Feed the Beast is one of those kinds of shows that could go either way. Based on a loosely classified ‘Nordic Noir’ Danish show (Bankerot) about a restaurant and the criminal underworld around it, it could have been quite a vehicle for storytelling and talent. It also appears on AMC, which has a history of mostly quality hits rather than misses (with a few exceptions, of course). But then, even though the show is watchable, it feels like it is always on the edge of comedy, and I don’t think it is supposed to. Maybe this is because everyone in the show feels like a caricature.

First and foremost, David Schwimmer plays, Tommy, a slightly angrier, more bitter and grief-stricken version of whiny, pathetic Ross from Friends. It’s not that he is incapable of something else – it’s just that this role requires it. And we know from the 12 or so years of Friends that he has mastered that role (incidentally I read an interesting take on Friends’ Ross and how he – and how he was treated and turned into a kind of cartoon – mirrors the way society treats and views intellectuals. And Schwimmer is probably underrated in general; as far as I was concerned, his performance in The People vs. OJ Simpson – as Robert Kardashian – was one of the highlights of that program). In any case, despite Schwimmer’s capability, his presence in a role that so closely matched the Ross role on some levels distracts and inevitably leads the Friends-soaked brain to scream out: “comedy”.

Tommy’s best friend, a low-level conman – and chef – “Dion” (an effective Jim Sturgess), who “bobs and weaves” his way through life, also feels comedic, mostly because his egregious actions don’t seem to lead to real consequences. Sure, he went to prison, but in his own estimation, he enjoyed it there because he got to cook. When he crosses bad guys, he gets a beat down, but nothing he doesn’t just walk away from. He keeps getting chances – and maybe that is what I find unbelievable, even if in real life I see people who get more chances than they deserve and more chances than I can count. It is not unrealistic at all; it just seems that way to me because my own view of the world is linear, and I am not a conman who counts on wriggling and wiggling my way out of every scrape. (And of course these scrapes the character gets into are all his own making; all get worse because of his propensity for piling shit on shit and promise on promise – none of which he can keep.)

The two friends reunite and open a restaurant, Thirio (‘the beast’, apparently, in Greek), which had been their dream along with Tommy’s deceased wife, Rie. This explains Tommy’s grief and anger – and increasing alcoholism, which he tries badly to mask (with his career as sommelier); the only thing keeping him going at all is his son, who has not spoken a word since his mother died.

Naturally the restaurant opening is much easier said than done and ends up involving Dion’s connections and obligations to underworld criminals (the main one is played by Michael Gladis, who is best known as Paul Kinsey from Mad Men – a character who always struck me as near-caricature tragicomedy, which contributes to my feeling about Feed the Beast) and Tommy’s racist, hateful father (to whom he has not spoken since sometime before he even got married). It all makes for what could be a compelling story – but it never quite does. I keep watching because I do get drawn in; yet, it’s never quite as good as it could be. I suspect this is because of this aforementioned hint of comedy I keep getting the scent of (and shouldn’t be).

Lunchtable TV Talk: Survivor’s Remorse

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While I never heard of it and find the title a bit strange (survivor’s guilt? buyer’s remorse? I can sort of see the strains of this… but somehow it seems like its title would be better for the underrated and already canceled Getting On, while this show could easily be called Getting On…) for a basketball drama, I decided to dig in and watch after Survivor’s Remorse appeared on a few 2015 best-of lists. I would not go so far as to put it atop any best lists, but it’s rather entertaining.

The show riffs a bit on the family drama – a gifted young athlete becomes an almost overnight millionaire and his family tags along when he moves to the Atlanta team. We’ve seen stuff like this, but most dramas explore the exploitative aspects of the family (the family milks the athlete for all he is worth). You get a taste of that here, but mostly the family is close and the strength of that keeps it all together.

Nice to see the actress, Teyonah Parris, who played Mad Men’s first black secretary, Dawn, land here in a big supporting role. The show is ostensibly a comedy but quite handily deals with some serious issues, making light of divisive matters. Comedy flows, sometimes from the strangest places, but nowhere is it more consistent and hilarious than with the family uncle, Julius. Julius is a bit of a loser/hanger-on but always tells it like it is (usually in a way that’s comical). I won’t cite examples – it’s worth you watching yourself to see him ride with local police to chase down a ne’er-do-well bicycle thief, to watch him using his nephew’s new fame to score with a bunch of women or to see him go to a store to find a “dog repellent” and find one called “K Nein”.

I can’t say that the main character inspires much interest at all – but everyone around him is worth viewing, from the aforementioned uncle to the main character’s sister, Mary Charles, from crazy DeShauwn to the Chinese shoe “captain of industry” Da Chen Bao. They are worth watching.

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.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Israeli TV – Beyond Homeland

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Homeland is probably the only well-known reimagining of an original Israeli TV program. Americans (or anyone, really) grabbing onto an existing show – and either bastardizing it (which in television is more like stealing a scene-for-scene replay without adaptation or creativity or even cultural consideration) or redirecting it not for the better but maybe for greater perspective on a similar theme – is nothing new. The UK and US bat their respective shows across the Atlantic to make and remake like so many shuttlecocks, but adaptations from further afield are beginning to inspire. That said, just because you can watch a remake does not mean you should avoid the original. In fact, the original is usually better. The original UK version of The Office lasted only two glorious seasons. When the US made its own version, it started off slowly and tried to make a scene-by-scene copy of the original. Only when the US started to use the concept but not the play-by-play sameness did the US version of The Office find its voice – and become its own show. Both are good shows.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of (most of) Homeland. It is loosely based on Israeli program Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which is considerably more complex than Homeland. I am a bigger fan of Hatufim, even if it suffers from very different production values. It feels like a human story, much more than the edgy thriller Homeland aspires to be.

But Israeli TV has also offered up some adapted gems, such as the little-watched and often frustrating (in a good way) In Treatment. In it, Gabriel Byrne played a therapist and patient. Each night of the week, he would see a patient and on the last night of the week, he would see his own therapist (Dianne Wiest). The Israeli original was called B’tipul and introduced the concept of showing one episode nightly – each one representing one patient’s appointment, i.e. each Monday was the same patient, etc. It only lasted for two seasons, but it was engaging in a way that most shows are not. You would not imagine that a show in which two people sit, talk and engage in what are fairly realistic therapy sessions would draw you in. But somehow they did. Maybe not enough, though, because the show did not last.

Taking inspiration from an Israeli source does not always work – most likely when major American networks get their claws into the idea. The recent attempt to adapt Israeli program, The Gordin Cell, into a spy thriller, Allegiance, did not work at all. In this case, it seems it was less about trying to create a quality show and more about trying to capitalize on the critical praise heaped on The Americans. I assume NBC thought they could jump on the “Russian spy story” bandwagon, but it’s not as simple as that. Just as Mad Men’s popularity and critical acclaim did not transfer automatically to other 1960s period dramas with thin plots, like Pan Am and The Playboy Club, among others. Further evidence that major networks are usually followers, not leaders. Sometimes that works; usually it doesn’t.

Lunchtable TV Talk: AMC outliers – Low Winter Sun and Rubicon

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What do you do when you’re a network like AMC, which has commanded cultural giants of creative, prestige programming like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and smaller-scale but still edgy or unusual stuff like Halt and Catch Fire, Hell on Wheels and Humans, when you have clear outliers on your hands? You are not going to have a hit that viewers lap up, à la The Walking Dead, or a critical darling, à la Mad Men, every time. You can hope for quiet wins now and again, or the slow build of an audience that lets you tell a complete story. But sometimes, you strike out. AMC, despite its clout – or perhaps because of the weight of expectation – cannot hit it out of the park every time. Or even get a base hit.

This was true of both the mediocre Low Winter Sun and the challenging but worthwhile Rubicon.

Netflix can enable addicts like me. I am addicted to watching series, and even though I had read all the bad reviews of Low Winter Sun and its plodding pace, I watched it anyway. I needed to work on something through the night, and I thought, “Why not?” After all, I wanted to see if it was as bad as I’d read/heard and also wanted something that could serve as English-language background noise without forcing any concentration from me.

Like another one-season-and-gone AMC program, Rubicon, it never found its place or time. The only difference is that Low Winter Sun was a remake of a UK miniseries; Rubicon was an original in every sense of the word “original”. Come on, recounting the premise even now (a story about government data system analysts) won’t start any fires, right?

I don’t sit around and actively miss or think about Rubicon but believe it was a show with a story to tell. Low Winter Sun, though, was just awkward. Nice to see some actors who turn up in other AMC stuff, like Breaking Bad’s David Costabile (he was the ill-fated Gale Boetticher) and The Walking Dead’s Lennie James (he’s Morgan, who has just reappeared in the last season of Dead…). I almost wanted to like Low Winter Sun just because I want to attribute some kind of trust to the AMC pedigree or wanted to be some sort of rebel and like something no one else liked, but the dialogue really hurt. It was not bad acting, not a terrible story … but somehow the pieces did not all come together and nothing people said felt very natural. And that’s where it suffered. Mad Men did not always have the more natural dialogue either, but it had other legs to stand on, bigger themes to dig into, deeper stylistics to display. Low Winter Sun had nothing else going for it, and delivered exactly what you’d expect accordingly.

Shameless TV addiction

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I don’t know if other kinds of addicts get a rush from meeting other addicts. I suspect not because with drugs or drink, it might provide a kinship but also means there’s less of whatever substance being used to go around. This does not apply with TV. There’s plenty to go around, the more the merrier.

Being a TV addict is a relatively new identity for me to embrace. I spent many years not watching any TV (largely during my education), so there are blind spots in my TV knowledge (although not many because I read a lot of pop culture publications and still caught TV out of the corner of my eye). I suppose it has always been a bit of a hidden addiction for people of a certain type. Academics and intellectuals proudly and not without judgment in their voice announcing that they don’t watch or own a television. To some degree this high-culture anti-TV bent has been mitigated by the current golden age of television, in which serialized stories are a new form of in-depth cinematic genius and character development. It’s fine now to rattle off a handful of culturally acceptable programs, i.e. Mad Men, Breaking Bad and maybe something slightly more obscure.

But to admit that you pretty much watch a huge amount of what is offered… that’s still a bit of a mark against you. But you know what? I just turned 40… and I don’t care. I am 40, and I can do whatever the hell I want (or don’t want) with my time!

Something that makes me feel more confident about this choice is not just that I am 40, but also, meeting other fellow TV addicts who understand that you do not necessarily neglect everything else in your life in favor of vegging out in front of the telly. No, it is one thing that is going on among many.

I have a colleague who has seen all the rare and obscure and strange TV that I never thought I would be able to share or discuss with anyone. And that was not just a rush but helped make some of the more challenging work days better. It also made me feel that the lifestyle I have chosen is conducive to binge watching and not feeling badly about it.

Recently I discovered that another former colleague is almost as TV addicted and has very similar tastes to mine. Few things are socially as satisfying as being able to share the storylines and clever bits of dialogue – or to be able to discuss your own “tier” system for viewing (the can’t-miss, great shows; the stuff you don’t miss but is not quite great; the rest… or in my case, the stuff I hate but could not stop watching because it fueled the fire against stupidity, e.g. The Following, Looking, Brothers & Sisters…).

I don’t know that any other amateur TV addicts take it as seriously as I do, often writing feverish, critical blog posts (not well-thought-out or researched enough to be professional-level criticism) when inspired to, but the sense of relating to someone based on their tastes and also on their tendencies to overdose is comforting.

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

Suddenly Kevin Rahm

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I had seen him in other places like Judging Amy and Desperate Housewives (neither being shows I actually watched), so Kevin Rahm never registered with me. But now he is everywhere. He has been Mad Men’s (newly moustachioed) Ted Chaough, Bates Motel’s bad guy Bob Paris and Madam Secretary’s somewhat mad external strategist, Mike B. It is Rahm’s moment.

His simultaneous ubiquity put him on my TV obsessed radar, but I do wonder what his future holds. He is sort of an everyman, can even appear a bit on the milquetoast side. Either he can play this everyman everywhere or he can be more of a secret weapon – displaying the ability to blend in like an everyman before unleashing some craziness and villainy on unsuspecting viewers.

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