When people use heroin over a long period of time, they frequently develop coughs, acne, lip sores, and abscesses. Put simply, they don’t look well. You wouldn’t know this from watching television, however, where heroin users often sport Red Carpet-worthy smiles, toned physiques, and clear complexions. Jessa Johansson, one of the lead characters in the HBO series Girls is one such example. She is addicted to heroin and yet, her appearance is flawless, right down to her glowing skin, shiny hippie hairdo and perfectly-pressed bohemian harem pants. Although not the worst offender, Girls is just one example in a long list of TV shows that have fallen short in portraying addiction in a realistic fashion. But who can blame them? As Malina Saval, an Associate Editor for Variety put it: “Addiction isn’t pretty, and it’s often not something that you want to tune in to watch.” Addiction is a long, complicated (and even boring) disease. All the hallmarks of good television—clear causes and culprits, “aha moments”, and tidy resolutions, for example—are often missing from the addiction narratives people experience in real life. No one knows why some people develop a substance use disorder and others do not and contrary to popular belief, when addicts “hit bottom”, it’s frequently not due to any singular dramatic event. For many, the decision to quit drinking or using and seek help is a gradual and internalized one—and many experience relapse. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to delve into all the nuances of addiction and remain within a 45-minute episodic story line, and this leaves writers forced to make a decision: Realism or ratings? As the Variety article pointed out, while there are many shows that depict addiction in its extreme forms, “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.” Is Hollywood Too Focused on Active Addiction? Paul Hinshaw, Senior Inpatient Counselor at Las Vegas Recovery Center, thinks that answer might be “yes”.
“Hollywood focuses on active addiction and the raw experience of coming clean. Ninety-nine percent of the time when you watch a movie or TV show with an addiction storyline, the character is in active addiction and is in real turmoil,” he explains. “The other two percent of the time, the storylines show a character who is just getting clean and is in very early recovery; they’ve just completed drug rehab or have only attended a meeting or two. The general public never really sees true recovery (a spiritual awaking) on television or in film.”
Why the Bias? Hinshaw reasons recovery isn’t an experience to which many in the general public can relate and given the internalized nature of it, it can be difficult to portray on camera. “It’s easier to entertain and hold people’s attention when you’re depicting a person’s downward spiral. Portraying a spiritual and emotional awakening is a lot more difficult to do on film. It’s not exciting. It’s exciting for the person experiencing it, yes,—but that often doesn’t translate on screen.” Dan Mager, MSW, author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain, shares a similar sentiment, saying in a recent interview: “Recovery has a routine and ritualistic aspect to it that is the antithesis of mainstream entertainment. There’s nothing exciting or sexy about it. It doesn’t lend itself to mainstream television.” Do the Latest TV Shows Represent a Turning Point? A Look Ahead If recent TV trends are anything to go by, it would appear that Hollywood is attempting to take a more all-encompassing and grounded approach in its silver screen depictions of addiction and sobriety. Now, when we see addicts on TV, they’re more likely to be fully-fleshed out characters. Their addiction are no longer their only defining characteristic, but rather a single aspect of a multifaceted identity. Mager believes this is a step in the right direction. “In general, they’re moving in a more accurate direction. Progress is slow. Ultimately, the entertainment industry needs to find a way to present more stable, longer-term recovery that’s accurate, but somehow fits the plot of TV shows or movies. Typically when it’s portrayed, people are in early recovery and struggling. Very few people are shown as successful. It would be helpful to see more examples of people in long-term recovery who are living healthy, balanced lives.”
Addiction and Recovery on TV: Who Gets It Right?
While the shows on this list are far from perfect, they’ve earned high marks with both critics and members of the recovery community for their attempt to shed a new and more nuanced perspective on the disease of addiction and the millions of Americans affected by it.
1. Love, Netflix
The focus of the Netflix show Love is on the awkward and stumbling relationship between its two main characters: Mickey (a narcissistic wild child) and Gus (a nerdy and self-centered “nice guy”). Although viewers don’t discover it until halfway through the season, Mickey (shown drinking and abusing prescription meds in previous episodes) has been trying to stay sober. Scenes depict Mickey sitting in her car smoking a joint outside of an AA meeting, lying to her sponsor, and feeling isolated at home as she struggles to resist the urge to drink or pop a pill. It’s Love’s “quiet depiction” of addiction that makes the series “uniquely honest”, says one reviewer for Bustle.com. From the article: “On Love, addiction isn’t made into a spectacle. Mickey relies on drugs and alcohol to keep herself invested in the world around her, but she never reaches a “rock bottom,” which is what many shows would have a character do. Addiction doesn’t affect Mickey’s job and it doesn’t push those close to her away — but it does keep her from connecting with others in meaningful, honest ways. Addiction, in this case, doesn’t take something away from her, but it prevents her from living a full life.” Love was produced by 40-Year-Old Virgin and Trainwreck producer Judd Appetow, so although it has the feel of a dark and quirky independent comedy, it also has Appetow’s signature raunchy humor and vulgar language. It’s not for everyone, but it’s worth a watch for fans of shows like You’re the Worst or Casual.
2. Nurse Jackie, SHOWTIME
What makes Nurse Jackie so powerful in its depiction of addiction is that its main character, Jackie, is far from stereotypical. She’s a high-functioning addict who, over the course of seven seasons, lies and manipulates her way out of numerous confrontations and mishaps while still remaining, for the most part, a competent member of society. One of it’s co-creators as well as the actress who plays Nurse Jackie, both struggled with addiction in the past, and purposely wanted to show Jackie as a damaged yet proficient and accomplished person. In an interview with NPR.com, co-creator Liz Brixius said: “We wanted a picture of a woman with addiction on TV that wasn’t pathetic or slovenly or slurring her words,” she says. “Like, somebody who is still incredibly competent at what she does.” Dan Mager thinks they pulled this off well, saying: “Nurse Jackie portrayed addiction extremely accurately. They successfully painted the grotesque self-centeredness that comes with active addiction. It was on point in many ways. The show demonstrated how people in higher-level capacities are able to walk a type rope and are able to function seemingly well. Of course, invariably every addict will fall off, and Nurse Jackie portrayed the pain and destruction quite eloquently.”
3. Shameless, SHOWTIME
Shameless follows the lives of an impoverished family in Chicago as they struggle to make ends meet and care for their father, Frank, who is a less-than-functioning alcoholic. It’s a dark premise for a show that bills itself as a comedy, which means that in order to balance out the heaviness, some of the show’s plotlines can be purposefully farfetched and over-the-top. What isn’t farfetched, however, is the show’s realistic portrayal of poverty and addiction and the havoc both of these things can wreak on a family. Frank is unemployed and spends most of his time either drinking at the local dive bar (one of the only dives he hasn’t been permanently banned from) or passed out on the living room floor. This leaves his six kids (only one of which is an adult) left to try to fend for their own survival, covering for their father to social security fraud investigators, school teachers, and even local mafia thugs. In one scene, his pre-teen daughter is attempting to drag her passed-out father out from under the kitchen table so that she can sit down and eat breakfast and in the next scene, she’s calling the area hospital and morgue because her father is once again missing (later scenes show him waking up dirty and cold on a park bench in Canada). Mager believes the show has done a decent job in hitting the right note with its portrayal. “Actor William H. Macy plays a brilliant stereotype/caricature of a lower-functioning and explicitly addicted character,” he comments. “His character does a wonderful job of depicting the dishonesty and manipulation that people in active addiction will display—He has no regard for the extent to which he uses other people.”
4. Mom, CBS
Created by the team who produced The Big Bang Theory and Two and Half Men, the CBS comedy Mom is unique in that it’s one of the first sitcoms to feature two main characters in recovery (read: in recovery, not active addiction). The show is about a daughter (Anna Faris) and mom (Allison Janney) who are both newly sober and struggling to remain that way while they navigate the obstacles of motherhood and life in alcohol-centric Napa Valley, California. Although the laugh track and the filmed-in-a-studio set dampen the realism of the show, as one reviewer for alternet.org commented, the show deserves brownie points for being the first of its kind to move beyond the “despair and denial” side of addiction. From the article: “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.” Variety writer Malina Saval also gave the show a positive review, writing: “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.”