×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

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.

More TV

  • Hanna_20180315_DSC05591.tif

    TV Review: 'Hanna'

    The 2011 film “Hanna” was a delicious surprise. Directed by prestige moviemaker Joe Wright (of “Atonement” and, later, “Darkest Hour”), “Hanna” played like an artist’s frantic attempt to cram in all the wild impulses he wasn’t allowed elsewhere, while retaining a certain fundamental elegance. Saoirse Ronan played a teen trained from childhood to be a [...]

  • Andy CohenThe Shops and Restaurants at

    Andy Cohen to Receive Vito Russo Award at GLAAD Media Awards

    Mazel, Andy Cohen! Bravo’s late-night talk show host is set to receive the Vito Russo Award at the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards on May 4 in New York City. Related Aaron Paul, Chelsea Handler and Meg Ryan Topline Sun Valley Film Fest Aaron Paul Addresses 'Breaking Bad' Movie Reports: 'It Has to Star Jesse' [...]

  • Bob Iger arrives at the Oscars,

    Bob Iger: 'Challenging Work of Uniting Our Businesses' Lies Ahead for Disney

    Bob Iger marked the historic occasion of Disney’s purchase of 21st Century Fox with a lengthy memo to staffers that was candid about the challenges of the massive integration of people and cultures that lies ahead for the media giant. “I wish I could tell you that the hardest part is behind us, that closing [...]

  • EMMA APPLETON as FEEF SYMONDS

    'Traitors' Producer 42 Hires Literary Manager Eugenie Furniss

    Eugenie Furniss is joining London- and Los Angeles-based management and production company 42 as literary manager, it was announced Wednesday. The company’s slate include movie “Ironbark,” a Cold War thriller starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and TV series “Traitors,” a spy thriller coming to Netflix in the U.S. at the end of the month. Furniss joins 42 [...]

  • Disney Fox Takeover Placeholder

    Fox Corp. Pays Disney Sale Dividend, Sets May 9 Investor Meeting

    Fox Corp. has handed over an $8.5 billion check to help Disney offset tax costs related to the 21st Century Fox acquisition. As spelled out in the Disney-21st Century Fox merger agreement, the Murdoch clan’s newly established Fox Corp. was on the hook to pay a special dividend to 21st Century Fox on the latter’s [...]

  • Stranger Things

    Netflix Drops 'Stranger Things' Season 3 Trailer (Watch)

    The “Stranger Things” kids are done playing board games in the basement. From the new trailer for season three, which Netflix just dropped, and The Who song “Baba O’Riley” blasting throughout, it would appear that the gang of Eleven, Mike, Lucas, Dustin and co. are about to experience their “teenage wasteland.” Related Aaron Paul, Chelsea [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content