TV Is Addicted to Addicts, But Does It Get Dependence Right?

TV Is Addicted Addicts, Does It
Courtesy of CBS

There’s a lingering perception in pop culture that drug use is glamorous and au courant, something that builds character and renders a person sexy and intriguing, like an advanced degree in comp lit or the ability to acquire foreign languages easily. See Don Draper with a martini in one hand and a beautiful mistress in the other. Or Jessa on “Girls,” whose bohemian clothes and Rapunzel hair perpetuate the illusion that cocaine-cum-heroin junkies forever maintain the appearance of a Free People catalogue model. In real life, heroin junkies develop abscesses and hacking coughs, sores on their lips and acne. They look like ghosts. Even on “Nurse Jackie,” one of the decade’s most convincing portraits of drug addiction, there were just so many episodes where you had to suspend your disbelief — Jackie should have been dead by season two. Of course, then we would have missed out on five more seasons and Edie Falco’s most dynamic career performance, for which she won the 2010 Emmy for lead actress in a drama.

Because of addiction’s prevalence in our society — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014 there were 10,574 heroin overdose deaths in the U.S. — TV is teeming with characters struggling with drugs and alcohol, from “Shameless” to “Mr. Robot” to IFC’s “Maron” and the sobriety sitcom “Mom.” And some shows do it well; if ever a series unflinchingly — if, occasionally, satirically — captured the gory violence of the crystal meth trade it’s “Breaking Bad,” for which Bryan Cranston pretty much monopolized the actor in a drama series category, winning the Emmy an astounding four times.

The Television Academy, in fact, has a history of rewarding small-screen lushes. For his iconic turn as the perpetually soused Hawkeye on “MASH,” Alan Alda won two actor Emmys. Candice Bergen won the Emmy for actress in a comedy series five times for playing a recovering alcoholic on “Murphy Brown,” and Ted Danson scored two Emmys for playing sobered-up baseball player-turned-bar proprietor Sam Malone on “Cheers.” Even Jim Parsons, who plays socially challenged theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper on the “The Big Bang Theory,” nabbed his first Emmy win for an episode in which he gets sloppy drunk. Hollywood, it seems, loves a character who can’t handle his booze.

But rare is the series that deals with addiction in a way that accurately depicts the frustrating, oft fatal, and sometimes even boring reality of what it is — a disease. There’s a general tendency among critics to assess shows on the strength of their entertainment value, and not how truthfully they convey what it’s actually like to be an addict — or live with one. “Ray Donovan” tackles heady addiction-adjacent subject matter like molestation and Irish-Catholic broods, and “Orange Is the New Black” features a cast of addict convicts, but there isn’t a small-screen counterpart examining, say, the lives of depressed, college-educated worker bees quietly dependent on benzo­diazepines. And there are millions of those people.

Granted, most facets of addiction probably wouldn’t make for good television. Comedies like “Broad City” and “Freaks and Geeks” aside, in the real world there is nothing less interesting than watching potheads get stoned.

A life of abstinence, however, can be hilarious, which is why comedies like “Mom” and “Catastrophe,” with all of their off-color, self-effacing wit, so successfully chronicle the journey of the addict in recovery. On “Mom,” Emmy-winner Allison Janney and Anna Faris play a sober mother-daughter team coping with booze cravings, romantic dysfunction, and the daily challenges of being sober physically — but not necessarily emotionally. On Amazon’s “Catastrophe,” Rob Delaney nails the part of an affectionate and loving but also conventionally narcissistic man-child who quit drinking after he “shit at [his] sister’s wedding.”

What’s especially refreshing about both of these shows is that they debunk the myth that once you get clean you’re suddenly “fixed.” Instead, they’re predicated on the fact that addiction is a disease that people live with for their entire lives, whether or not they’re actively getting wasted. What’s so commendable about “Mom” especially is that it examines what most people do not understand — that sobriety can be the most difficult aspect of alcoholism.

On the flip side, Freeform’s now-canceled “Recovery Road” was a show that missed the mark entirely, serving up a candy-coated rendering of rehab that belies most everything we know to be true. The series’ collective flaws are best summed up in one line, said by a high school guidance counselor to Maddie (Jessica Sula), a strung-out party girl she’s threatening with expulsion unless she moves into a sober living facility: “You can go to school by day and spend your evenings getting sober.” As if sobriety is a part-time job. Maddie tries to keep her situation a secret, and the surrounding adults seem OK with that — even though honesty is one of the primary tenets of recovery. You can tell what the network was trying to do — create a show about addiction that parents could watch with their kids. But that’s a pointless task if it doesn’t ring true.

“Shameless,” for all of its outlandishness — patriarchal drunk Frank Gallagher (Emmy-nominated William H. Macy) has survived liver failure, a kitchen fire, and being tossed over a bridge into a river — is the series that perhaps most accurately captures the pervasiveness with which alcoholism wreaks havoc on a family. Everybody suffers. Everybody is powerless. Denial rips through the family line. Whether they are using or not, all of the Gallagher kids are living with the –ism.

When it comes down to it, no fictional TV series can definitively capture the brutal truth of how drugs and alcohol destroy people’s lives. Rather, it’s documentaries like Steven Okazaki’s brilliant and harrowing “Heroin: Cape Cod” — which focuses on eight young addicts — that paint the starkest, most blistering, and most realistic portrait of addiction. Because addiction isn’t pretty, and it’s often not something that you want to tune in to watch.

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  1. Michael Klossner says:

    And don’t forget Sherlock Holmes on Elementary. It seems pretty accurate because his only means of getting through life is to stay sober, but he can’t be relied on to do that.

  2. Michael Levine says:

    Well put. I think the weakest part of the otherwise brilliant Mr. Robot is Elliot’s addiction. It’s an easy out, the character equivalent of starting a show with a sex scene.

    The record biz depicted in Vinyl is pretty similar to the record biz I came up in during the 1980s. I found myself not watching despite excellent writing and acting because the central character, Richie, was waaay too much like the actual narcissistic, self-pitying, exploitive drug addicts I knew who ran record companies then. I don’t find people like that intriguing or glamorous – just obnoxious and destructive.

    Back in the day, after my writing partner died of an overdose (in Boy George’s apartment! How glamorous!), I got so fed up I switched to writing music for advertising. Fortunately, it was after the 3 martini full-on misogyny of the Mad Men days – maybe that’s why that show didn’t turn me off before I turned it off.

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