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Mad Men to the Hangover movies: On small screens and large, drinking is everywhere

In this week's season finale of Mad Men, the world's favourite functional alcoholic finally bottoms out. Don Draper, a character whose cool self-composure has hinged for six seasons on his ability to tolerate prodigious amounts of day drink, seems to lose everything – his wife, his friends, his job, the respect of his children, even to some extent the quality that defines him most: his impenetrable style and good looks.

For a guy like Don, whose world is built on clean, smooth surfaces that belie the chaos swirling underneath, drink proves a seductive but dangerous companion. As anyone who has ever given themselves over to the bottle – either for a mad Friday night or their entire 20s – well knows, drink is a deceptive, even ironic lover.

It starts off as a balm to the soul, untying the double knot in your brain, plastering over the queasy cracks where darkness lurks. It allows you to be funny at parties and eloquent in meetings, uninhibited in bed and composed in the face of disaster. Administered properly, it is quite simply the best thing ever: a cheap, delicious, legal and socially acceptable elixir that plumps up the good and tamps down the bad. And despite these extraordinary qualities, it's also shockingly normal. People offer it up wherever you go! You can keep it in your cupboard! You can take a little extra in your handbag to work!

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Once fully engaged for these purposes, however, drink begins to have the opposite effect. Your formerly confident, debonair bedfellow becomes needy and insistent, demanding more and more mindless attention like a one-week stand gone from crazy-sexy to just plain crazy. Now that you are inextricably involved, now that you owe each other, drink starts to take liberties. It pokes at the cracks, exacerbating the darkness it once so elegantly banished; it ensnares you in a tangled web of the knots it previously untied. Drink is going down, and it's taking you with it. The unflappable Don Draper you once knew is now a stinking, raging, whimpering fetal ball in a Manhattan jail cell.

Yep, it's a downer all right. It's also just a natural part of the inevitable cycle of over-drinking. While our cultural relationship with the bottle might be up and down in real life, in film and TV, it's full-blown schizophrenic with bipolar and addictive tendencies. Draper's dramatic rock-bottom is almost a relief, coming as it does at the end of a protracted big-screen bender that began hilariously with the drunk-driving scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (in which a sober Steve Carell is ranted at, molested and nearly killed by an inebriated Leslie Mann), continued on to the sloppy, condom-free, one-night stand in Knocked Up and woke up in Vegas with, not one, but three Hangovers – each one more awful, embarrassing and vomit-inducing than the last. The final one, I think it's safe to say, we'd all like to forget ever happened.

And this summer the debauchery continues, at least in the movies. The Internship, a truly inebriated comedy featuring former wedding-crashers and seasoned onscreen drinking buddies Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, is basically a tequila ad wrapped in propaganda for Google. The plot could be summarized thusly. Cool dudes meet geeks. Cool dudes teach geeks to drink. Drink, geeks, drink.

Like many recent comedies of its ilk, The Internship will leave you nauseated, full of self-loathing and in need of a long, hot shower. If you are anything like me, it will make you wonder when binge drinking became so normal at the movies. Even this summer's most-buzzed-about indie flick centres on getting sozzled. Drinking Buddies, a romantic comedy set in a microbrewery, promises to do for hipsters what The Internship does for geeks, that is to say, inflict maximum cinematic liver damage.

When I was a kid, the only films that featured scenes of outright intoxication were B-movies such as The Adventures of Bob & Doug McKenzie: Strange Brew and the Cheech & Chong series. We would watch these videos at junior high sleepovers, going, "Oooh, yeah man, I could totally go for a bong hit and a brewskie right now, couldn't you?" Then, if we were feeling really crazy, we'd drink half a bottle of Sleeman Honey Brown lager before filling it up with tap water and nailing the cap back on so Dad wouldn't notice. Then maybe smoke some nutmeg. Little geniuses, we were.

Anyway, the point is these were not regular movies but illicit, R-rated and weirdly meandering genre flicks that showed a side of life that was the opposite of normal. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, getting openly drunk and stoned seemed aberrant, which was of course exactly why we wanted to do it. People who drank to excess in mainstream movies were flat-out alcoholics. Think Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. These days, the liquored-up, strung-out weekend in Vegas is standard comic fare – one generation's cautionary tale has become the next one's comic fodder.

This, of course, is why Mad Men has done such a brilliant job of bringing our cultural relationship with booze full circle. Back in Don Draper's era, cocktail culture at the movies was as common and unremarked on as bachelor-party body shots are now. It was a downward spiral toward a rock-bottom, of course. But man, did we ever have fun getting there.

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