8 TV Shows That Take on Drugs and Addiction


Looking back, it makes sense that growing up I assumed alcoholism and addiction were problems reserved for “other people’s families.” After all, I was a child of the ‘70s, born and raised on Sesame Street and Frosted Flakes and primetime television. This is back when drinking and drugs were the stuff of “very special episodes” and ABC afterschool specials and b-story subplots, and one-off storylines that were basically a prompt for network public service announcements sponsored by nascent groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Driving Drunk (SADD). I remember Jason Robards staring into the camera and solemnly announcing, “I am an alcoholic.”

Whenever one of my favorite sitcoms did deal with the disease of addiction, it was generally in relation to some guest-starring actor, an uncle blowing through town—Tom Hanks as vanilla extract-chugging Uncle Ned in a 1984 episode of Family Ties is one of my all-time favorites—or an old college friend that turns up for a visit with toys for the kids and a suitcase of vodka in tow. And the scenario was always played for laughs. TakeCheers, for example, a show where everybody was always drinking but there didn’t seem to be any major consequences. To be drunk was the basis for zippy one-liners and clever zingers. Sam Malone used to be an alcoholic, so the series would have us believe, but he hasn’t had a single slip. One of my most memorable Cheers exchanges of all time is when Woody says to Norm—who’s just sidled up to the bar in the wee morning hours—that it’s a little early for a beer. Norm’s flippant response: “So put a cornflake in it.” 

Once in a while, a recurring cast member on a show would develop a “real” problem, like the time Jesse Spano (pre-Showgirls Elizabeth Berkley) on Saved by the Bell got hooked on caffeine pills trying to juggle the demands of mid-term exams and her singing group, an addiction neatly cured over the course of 30 minutes (minus commercial breaks)—but not before Jesse hits rock bottom, belting out a manic rendition of “I’m So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters while bursting into tears. And who can forget Rayanne on MTV’s cult classic My So-Called Life, quite possibly the coolest high school lush to ever grace the small screen and the girl that convinced me that in order to become an alcoholic, you had to have waist-length hair and wear flannel (because I had neither I was obviously immune). Sadly, Rayanne, and the show, only lasted a season. And we never did see Uncle Ned again (He went on to star in Splash). And Jesse, well, by the time the next Saturday morning episode rolled around she, Slater and Screech were knocking back milkshakes at The Max and dancing to Flashdance songs like the whole caffeine pill thing never happened. When it came to media consumption during those heady adolescent years, alcoholism never stuck around for long. Nobody needed AA or Al-Anon. Everybody was cured!

Thankfully, TV culture has come around. For the past twenty years or so, series creators have recognized that addiction is an affliction of its recurring cast, too, and that you can’t solve the “problem” in time for a third-act Tropicana ad. From Christopher Moltisanti’s heroin junkie in The Sopranos to Hank Moody’s boozy lothario-cum-novelist on Californication to AMC’s monster meth hit Breaking Bad, there have been dozens of shows with leading characters that are addicts (The West Wing even had its own White House AA meeting). Today, Showtime’s Ray Donovan and CBS’ Sherlock Holmes send-up Elementary are just two of the high-profile shows that feature alcoholic protagonists and storylines in which addiction affects the cast at large. Of course, some do it better than others, so here’s a round-up of my current top picks—both on the comedic and dramatic fronts—with compelling, if not entertaining, addiction plotlines:

Shameless (Showtime): This brazen, balls-to-the-wall dark comedy is quite possibly the series that most aptly, and unapologetically, chronicles the full-blown narcissism of addiction, and in ways that never fail to amuse. An American reboot of the original British series, Shameless stars William H. Macy as drunken deadbeat dad Frank Gallagher, who’s too busy scoring his next buzz or hatching his next get-rich-quick scheme—within days of getting a liver transplant he’s back on the bottle—to parent his half-dozen kids, who live in a rundown house on the south side of Chicago with feisty eldest daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum) as their legal guardian. Fiona is responsible and hardworking, scrambling to make ends meet to provide for her siblings while juggling her own dysfunctional love life. She, too, buckles under the pressure and makes her own fair share of mistakes—in the fourth season she lands in the slammer after her toddler brother gets into her stash of cocaine. (After a period of house arrest, she’s now attending mandatory AA meetings).

Shameless straddles a fine line between the outlandish and the believable, and does so successfully. When Frank launches a moonshine brewery in his wife’s basement and then blows the insurance money he receives after the house bursts into flames on everything from a Porsche to rounds of drinks at the local watering hole, it actually seems plausible—because we’ve known real-life alcoholics that have pulled stunts almost just as crazy.

Mom (CBS): Now in its second season, this half-hour sitcom from co-creators Chuck Lorre and Gemma Baker is as close as one can get to a feel-good, family-friendly show about 12-step recovery. Anna Faris and Allison Janney (who won an Emmy in 2014 for the role) play Christy and Bonnie, a mother and daughter recently reunited after years of estrangement, both newly sober, both struggling to stay clean amidst life’s myriad of setbacks and obstacles—not the least of which is the fact that they live in Napa Valley, the wine capital of America. Christy is a waitress and single mom to two kids—her teenage daughter, Violet, to whom Christy gave birth when she was sixteen, gave a baby up for adoption at the teary end of last season—and often questions where she is in her life and how she got there while regularly attending AA meetings to stay on the straight and narrow. Bonnie is a reformed drug dealer angling to make amends to Christy for having spent most of her childhood partying and getting high (Christy’s dad ran out on them as soon she was born).

Themes of trust and forgiveness and family-of-origin-issues are woven throughout each episode, which neatly balances laughs with pretty serious subject matter. It’s refreshing to finally see a family on TV that is nowhere close to being perfect. That the show focuses on the challenges of sobriety and not active addiction makes it all the more relatable for those of us who understand all-too-well that when a loved one stops drinking it’s only the very, very beginning of a lifelong healing process.

Nurse Jackie (Showtime): There was a time when I couldn’t even imagine Edie Falco as anything but mafia boss wife Carmela Soprano, with her whiny Jersey accent and frosted hair and Lladro figurines in the tacky, wall-papered living room. Flash forward as we head into the seventh season of Nurse Jackie, and it’s nearly impossible to remember a time when Falco (who nabbed a lead actress Emmy for her performance) wasn’t playing Jackie Peyton, the opiate-addled E.R. nurse who lies and cheats and steals to maintain her prescription painkiller habit—all the while maintaining a fierce loyalty to her patients. Jackie, now divorced with two young daughters, including a rebellious and resentful teenager who hates her guts, is hyper-competent and supremely flawed: she’s having an affair with the hospital pharmacist (who provides her with ample access to Oxycontin), tricked her AA sponsor into checking herself into rehab and stole both the DEA number of a doctor colleague and the identity of a homeless dying nun in order to get drugs.

In the season six finale, Jackie attempts to flee New York, but after stopping to help a woman badly hurt in a car accident en route to JFK, crashes head-on into an ambulance and is busted by the cops, her stash of illegally-procured pills flying in slo-mo across the screen. The last scene is a mug shot. Like most addicts, Jackie is a ticking time bomb. She’ll do anything—anything—to score. But she’ll also do anything to save the people she loves. As we await the show’s final season, which bows this spring, the question now becomes: Can Jackie save herself?

Mad Men (AMC): Don Draper is television’s quintessential enigmatic hero, a man hiding from himself but looking for himself all the same at the bottom of every bourbon shot or dry martini (his drink of choice, of course, is the Old Fashioned). Played to painful perfection by the matinee idol-esque Jon Hamm, Draper, trapped in a perpetual identity crisis, drinks to escape his problems, which, naturally, only fester the deeper he sinks into an alcoholism that remains unnamed, undiagnosed and widely accepted. Draper’s glamorous brand of drunkenness—mistresses, sex, ad campaigns and boozy Palm Springs getaways abound—thrives heartily because he is living in an era in which people casually, and readily, pretend that there is absolutely nothing wrong.

In Mad Men, denial is a hot commodity. Everybody drinks—at the office, during pregnancy, during pitch meetings. In New York City on Madison Avenue circa late 1960s, you can’t toss an olive without hitting a cocktail glass. So how can it possibly be a problem? It’s only at the end of season six when Draper breaks down during a pitch meeting with the good people at Hershey's and reveals that he’s the bastard child of a prostitute, raised in a Pennsylvania brothel, that his colleagues at Sterling Cooper and Partners demand that he take time off. Shame is their motivator—not the fact that Draper is sick. And how often have we known this to be true in our own lives? There are only seven episodes left of the Emmy-winning series and many are wondering if Don Draper will ever get sober. Maybe once the ‘70s roll around and he turns totally anti-disco? Maybe in the ‘80s when his hair starts thinning and he finally joins AA? We may never find out. Nonetheless, Mad Men will always remain a genius show for the way in which it depicted a certain soul sickness that, despite the decades between us, feels all-too-familiar to many of us even today.

Girls (HBO): While not the central focus of Lena Dunham’s Golden Globe-winning meditation on white, upper-middle-class 20-something existence in New York City—and now in Iowa, where Dunham’s character, Hannah, finds herself in graduate school for creative writing—the series’ sort-of-funny but also sort-of-sad addiction subplot provides a sobering foil to the rest of its more frivolous storylines. Jessa (Jemima Kirke) is of the glamorous hippie chick variety—long, whiplash hair, gauzy maxi dresses and gobs of dangling gold and silver jewelry—but she also lacks direction, can’t figure out what to do with her life and has a drug problem that has landed her in and out of rehab. Jessa is your classic help-resistant user—she admits she has a problem but shows little interest in getting clean for good. Because what’s the fun in that, right? Even when she’s sober (as she is this season) her behavior screams addict—whether it’s a quickie wedding to a guy she barely knows (a union that ended disastrously) or peeing in public and talking back to a police officer, a stunt that lands her in handcuffs. We all know someone like Jessa, someone who’s too self-aware for her own good, someone who hasn’t exactly hit rock bottom and will likely float along charming her way out of trouble until things truly get out of hand.

Ray Donovan (Showtime): Even as crime families go, the Donovans definitely have their fair share of dysfunction. Big brother Ray (Liev Schreiber) is a Boston thug-turned-problem fixer to the Hollywood elite; brother Terry is a former boxer who developed Parkinson’s disease from being smacked in the head all those years; dad Mickey (Emmy-winner Jon Voight) is recently sprung from prison and stirs up trouble wherever he goes; and youngest brother Bunchy (Dash Mihok, painfully convincing in the role), molested by a priest as a child, identifies as an alcoholic and a sexual anorexic. Traumatized by the abuse he suffered as a child and burning with resentment that Mickey wasn’t there to save him, Bunchy lives in a state of near-permanent anguish. He attends a support group for survivors of sexual abuse, but nothing brings inner peace. He’s trapped in the past, unable to let go of the problems that drove him to drink in the first place—in season one he shot and killed a priest that he believed was the one who molested him. If you’re looking for a series in which a brood of criminals wrestle with family of origin issues look no further than Ray Donovan.

Elementary (CBS): The decision to make the world’s most famous detective a recovering addict—versus other iterations in which Sherlock Holmes (here played by Jonny Lee Miller) is a coke-snorting druggie—and give him a female sober companion-slash-partner in crime (Lucy Liu as a modernized “Watson”) was not only a bold creative move but a plum opportunity to explore the inconsistency of sobriety and debunk the myth that an addict can be “cured.” In one of the series’ most heart wrenching episodes, Holmes’ friend, a stage actor with 30 years of sobriety, overdoses on heroin (a presumable nod to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death). The incident leaves Holmes shaky; he’s only got two years of sobriety. Watson’s response is some of the sharpest writing about addiction in TV: "I'm sorry he's gone but his relapsing doesn't change a thing for you," she says. "You woke up today, you didn't use drugs, just like yesterday. You know what you have to do tomorrow? Wake up and not use drugs. That is just the way it is. That is just the way it's going to be."

Orange is the New Black (Netflix): It’s sort of a given that a sitcom set in a female penitentiary has to include addicts of one sort or another, and the breakout Netflix hit, now with two seasons under its belt, features a motley assortment of jail birds serving time for drug-related crimes. Their lives pre-prison are told through a series of flashbacks, so we only get occasional glances of the characters actively using, per se, but we do get a sense of the desperation and helplessness that prompted them to use and, in many of the cases, deal drugs. In its first season, we got to know Tricia Miller (Madeline Brewer), a vulnerable 19 year old that was living in the streets before she got arrested. Tricia is like a lovesick puppy, clinging to Mercy, her prison girlfriend, for warmth. When Mercy gets her walking papers, Tricia has an extremely difficult time dealing with the loss, and winds up overdosing on Oxycontin that was given to her by a crooked correctional officer. The series’ satirical brand of comedy occasionally requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but, hey, that’s most of television. More than anything,Orange begs the critical question, is imprisonment really the answer when it comes to addicts that turn to crime?

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