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From ‘BoJack’ to ‘Euphoria,’ Shows Devote Time to Depicting Sobriety (Column)

In Variety‘s Recovery Issue, prominent entertainment figures offer insights on navigating a sober life in Hollywood. For more, click here

After five seasons of hallucinogenic trips and drunken meltdowns, Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman” faced a crucial crossroads. The animated comedy series is, overall, one of Netflix’s best, and yet its main character is an acerbic jerk whose love of escaping his own head with mind-altering substances wins out over everything and everyone else time and time again. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and his team have consistently found ways to keep this repetitive loop sharp and relevant, but facing down its final season, the show had a choice to make. It could let BoJack continue to destroy himself and everything around him, or it could see what it might mean for him to significantly improve his life.

The sixth season, the first half of which dropped Oct. 25, chooses the latter. BoJack goes to rehab and takes a hard, if reluctant, look at himself. He sees his world through sober eyes for the first time since childhood and learns how to live in it. He digs in, and slowly but surely, he gets better. It’s another extraordinarily insightful chapter for the show, but it’s also telling that BoJack gets sober only in the series’ final hours. As the character — the washed-up equestrian star of the fictional 1990s sitcom “Horsin’ Around” — sighs in the sixth-season premiere, “Change is hard; it takes a long time.” And narratively speaking, recovery isn’t an especially interesting process. It’s grueling, constant, hard work that never lets up even as it might appear to fade from view. It’s introspective and lonely. It’s a series of day-in, day-out actions that, to many an outside observer, simply looks like breathing.

So while television frequently dives into addiction storylines and gives alcoholics the spotlight, it far less often does the same for sobriety in a substantial way. It’s frustrating that many shows shy away from naming and resolving addiction issues, but there’s a likely narrative culprit. Messy characters beget more dynamic storyline possibilities than straitlaced ones; characters who learn from their mistakes can cut off plot points at the knees. For every Sam Malone quietly steadying his life to fit a healthier mindset, there are five Don Drapers drowning themselves for our entertainment, over and over again.

That relative lack of representation makes the exceptions to the rule even more compelling, and recent years have seen a spate of shows that take advantage of TV’s opportunity to tell longer, deeper stories in order to examine what it means — and the incredible effort it takes — to get and stay sober. The splashiest example in recent memory is HBO’s “Euphoria,” a dizzying drama from creator Sam Levinson, who has spoken openly about his struggles with drug addiction as a teenager. On screen, his avatar is a disaffected girl who accidentally became addicted to opiates and has been barely clinging to consciousness ever since. The show’s emphasis on wild and glittery teen exploits had some wondering if it might be glorifying drinking and drug use. Watching it, however, it becomes clear that while “Euphoria” knows how to film benders, it doesn’t endorse them. As written by Levinson and played with heartbreaking empathy by Zendaya, Rue’s addiction isn’t glamorous or aspirational; it’s dark and draining, an oppressive weight around her neck that keeps dragging her into the dirt. It can be exhausting to watch, but as Rue reminds us repeatedly, it’s far more exhausting to live through.

While “Euphoria” underlines with hefty angst the impact of addiction, comedies are also finding ways to tackle the subject without sacrificing too many laughs. The CBS comedy “Mom,” from the Chuck Lorre shop, has made recovery the centerpiece of a show that stars Allison Janney and Anna Faris as a mother and daughter who both work to stay sober. Amazon’s “Catastrophe” drew on creator and star Rob Delaney’s real-life struggles with alcoholism to draw one of its most nuanced on-screen portrayals yet. Netflix’s animated series “Tuca & Bertie,” from “BoJack Horseman” executive producer Lisa Hanawalt, picked up shortly after one of its main characters got sober, opting to focus on her navigating that new stage of her life rather than the traumatic incidents that led her there. Without the reliable punchlines about needing a drink or five at their disposal, comedies featuring sober characters may have to work a little harder to make their jokes, but they also end up more singular as a result.

Each of these shows is wildly different, and yet they’re all united in their commitment to treating recovery as an individual and ongoing process. They also show how TV, with its intimate connection to the viewer and as a medium for telling stories over months or years, can be particularly well-suited to showing the intricate, everyday challenges of getting sober. No character needs a drink or five to be worthy of our attention.

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