The television may have been around since the late 1920s, but it is a medium that is constantly evolving. This is sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. We’re in the age of “peak TV,” with important shows like The Handmaid’s Tale now expected from major networks and streaming services, rather than being the odd success. On the other hand, the constantly increasing flow of reality TV shows, that paint a warped picture of the real world, does not bode well.
When it comes to TV shows that address addiction, the landscape is for the most part getting better. There are reality TV series that undermine the struggle, indulging people’s worst instincts by sensationalising an addict’s spiral downwards. However, there are many more series that present nuanced takes on addiction.
TV is very influential. The more LGBT characters are shown on series, the more accepted it becomes in real life. Transparent, for example, has made a huge impact on the way we understand transgender individuals. So it’s important that TV gets it right if it is to tackle the subject of addiction.
These are some of the ways recent series have succeeded in tackling addiction.
In the past, addicted characters were portrayed in one of two ways. Either their lifestyle was idealised, or they were shown to be losers, junkies who couldn’t do anything right.
Lately, however, very nuanced characters have appeared on our screens. Mom deals with a mother and daughter who both struggle with addiction. They are both trying to do their best for their children, while leading normal lives, and their addiction is not presented as who they are. Instead of two people who party all the time or are avoiding responsibility, they are contributing members of society.
Not that a character who is stuck in a rut or needs to party every night should be presented as deserving of any less empathy. Nowadays, rather than portraying this type of character as a lazy good-for-nothing, we see to the heart of their problem. Jessa in HBO’s Girls was a perfect example of this. She wanted to live a fulfilling life, free from addiction, but struggled to find her place in the world. Many millenials can relate to her struggle, as can anyone who was once twenty-something with no idea of who they were going to be.
Similarly, we see Kevin in This Is Us, who becomes addicted to painkillers following a bad knee injury. Ostensibly a successful actor, he struggles to self-motivate, leading to him giving up on relationships, jobs, and responsibility.
Even “junkies” who have been most condemned in the past, such as those living on the streets or in gangs, are being put in perspective. Series like Orange Is The New Black and How To Get Away With Murder have placed an emphasis on representing characters who have hit rock bottom, but don’t have the privilege to choose anything different.
Another important aspect that series are getting right is that they’re showing these characters in a realistic context. They are portrayed within families and workplaces, where their addiction has an effect on those around them.
Mad Men gave us the incredible character of Don Draper, a man who seemed to have it all. His disillusionment with life leads him to drink more and more, leading to the breakdown of two marriages, along with the collapse of his career. It also shows how the people around him, unaware of the dangers of alcoholism, continue encouraging him to enjoy a drink rather than recommending he gets help.
No one who is addicted to alcohol or drugs lives in isolation. They have responsibilities to the people around them, and vice versa. More and more series are getting the portrayal of the context of addiction right.
Perhaps the most important aspect of how TV is handling addiction these days is the fact that it’s showing that people can get help. Addiction does not make a person a lost cause. On the contrary, some of the addicted characters on screen are the strongest.
The characters I’ve mentioned have all sought help in one way or another. Some of them found success, others have not (yet). We’re no longer only seeing shows in which addiction leads to a terminal decline. The tragic reality is that some people never manage to beat their addiction. But it’s important that we acknowledge that many people do, and that they’re not the exceptions.
Portraying “Other” Addictions
Finally, I want to make mention of one more important way TV’s portrayal of addiction has evolved. In the past, we only saw alcohol and drug addiction. While these can make for more dramatic scenes, they are not the only addictions.
In Transparent’s 4th season, three characters realized they might have a sex/love addiction. Not all of them accept the diagnosis, but they all investigate it, and the process gives viewers insight into what is misunderstood as nothing more than promiscuity.
Seeley Booth, in Bones, was a recovering gambling addict, as was Warrick Brown in CSI. Gambling addiction is increasingly common, and is another addiction misunderstood as nothing more than bad behavior.
The opioid addiction which has swept the US and Canada is also getting coverage. TV is portraying addicts who started taking drugs legally, prescribed to them by doctors. Kevin from This Is Us is one excellent example. Grey’s Anatomy featured, in its most recent season, a teenage mother whose life took a nosedive due to prescription painkillers.
Addiction is finally being portrayed on TV in an accurate way, that encourages understanding and recovery. Rather than judging addicts according to outdated conventions, we’re seeing more and more nuanced, sensitive, troubled characters.