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Addiction in TV: The Awful and the Accurate

From Jesse Pinkman to Jessie Spano

There’s a handful of topics that TV shows go to when they need to inject a healthy dose of drama into the lives of their characters. Some of them are a little more abused and trope-ish than others. Women will be abused by men. Someone will get killed off. Someone will get hooked on drugs.

That last example is an easy narrative trope to use. Substance use and abuse is a very big deal, and it affects a lot of people. It also provides a platform for anything to happen: Health hazards, out-of-character behavior—anything can happen when a person is under the influence, and it makes a handy dandy tool for writers to bridge the gap between true-to-character writing and a shocking, very special episode of E.R. On some occasions, though, TV shows try a little harder and look beyond the easy win. They do their best to portray addicts as people or showcase the ugly realities of addiction.

Other times, there’s Saved by the Bell.

"Saved by the Bell"

You might have heard that Zack Morris is trash. This is never quite as true as it is when he’s pushing his friends to do something stupid for his own popularity or for financial gain. In “Jessie’s Song,” Zack Morris became the quintessential music producer and pushed perfectionist Jessie so hard she got addicted to caffeine pills in order to keep up with her work load, as well as Zack’s demanding performance and practice regimen. It’s a riot of an episode, with really dumb outfits and dance numbers, and it ends with Jessie breaking down screaming/crying the song “I’m So Excited” before admitting she’s scared.

It’s after-school programming at its absolute worst. Of course, in the original script Jessie was taking speed, which makes a lot more sense. After all, The Gilmore Girls probably down more in actual cups of coffee per episode than Jessie took in caffeine pill form.

The problems highlighted in the episode, however, are very real. Abuse of prescription medication among high school students in order to perform better is—20 years later—still a very real problem. Of course, there are resources, like school counselors, to help high school kids who might be struggling and feel overwhelmed by the pressure to achieve. It’s a serious issue, and while props should be given to SBTB for taking addiction on, maybe they should have been courageous enough to keep the speed. Now that would have been a true life lesson.

"The Haunting of Hill House"

Aside from the fact that I’ll never think of my recurring nightmares the same way ever again, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House took us through a whole collection of very serious issues as it showcased the lives of the Crain family in the aftermath of living in a seriously haunted house. We see financial problems, infertility, child abuse, migraines, and of course, addiction. While the show seems to gracefully touch upon the issues the adult Crain children deal with, it takes a serious, full-stop look at Luke’s battle with drug addiction.

We hear about Luke’s problems with addiction from the very first episode. We see him displaying addiction behaviors, like stealing from his family members and lying. We see him manipulate his twin sister into buying him heroin so he can inject it in her car (between his toes, no less). We also hear the family talk about the impact his addiction has on their lives. In the episodes dedicated to Luke, however, we get a good look at what addiction is like for him.

It’s a heartbreaking stop-start, staggered pattern of trying to get clean and relapsing. He goes to rehab. He works steps. He talks about the addiction truisms that apply to him. It shows how hard it is to try, especially when the only people who really understand you are the people who will stumble back into addiction, too—sometimes taking you with them. While the premise of the show might have been fantastical, Luke’s addiction is very real.

The actor himself, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, said it best: “Addicts in society and sometimes the way it’s kind of portrayed in entertainment are not really seen as people. We have to show that he’s an actual person.”

"Breaking Bad"

The show is about meth, so addicts are bound to appear. Jesse Pinkman starts out as a misguided meth cook/user, but over the course of the show, we see him go through a lot of changes. One of the biggest changes is courtesy of his drug-addicted girlfriend, Jane Margolis.

When we first meet Jane, she’s a recovering addict and Jesse’s new landlord. Though she tries to stay clean, being Jesse’s girl means relapsing. Her decline happens fast; she goes from refusing to smoke a joint with Jesse to heroin speedballs in the span of six episodes. While Walt tries to strong-arm Jesse into getting clean, Jane claws Jesse down into the worst kind of addiction—the deadly kind. It’s her overdose and death that, ultimately, makes Jesse hit rock bottom and illustrate the depths of Walt’s lack of morals for failing to intervene.

This rock bottom leads to a lot of big character changes for Jesse Pinkman. He gets clean and, eventually, tries to help Walter’s brother-in-law in the DEA arrest and prosecute him. It’s a war on drugs, only instead of fighting the meth kingpin with harsh and frequently unfair prosecution and sentencing, these guys are out for blood.

So long, Jane. At least in Jessica Jones, actress Krysten Ritter trades heroin for booze.

"Grey’s Anatomy"

While Grey’s Anatomy might not be the most realistic of shows (just ask any medical professional), the problem of addiction among doctors is. The show gives us several kinds of addiction in its attempt to portray a wide variety of people and problems. Original character Richard Webber famously struggles with alcohol addiction. Over the 16 seasons of Grey’s, we see him as a staunch member of AA, relapsing, and dealing with the death of his sponsor. His alcohol addiction and recovery rings true; he is often the voice of wisdom and guidance for other struggling characters.

In neurosurgeon Amelia Shepherd, however, we see a recovering opiate addict. In her time on the show, Amelia goes from wacky recovering addict to wacky tumor patient to wacky sponsor of an addicted teenager. Richard’s addiction is handled with some gravitas; Amelia’s is not nearly so well handled. Opioid addiction treatment is no joke—it’s a hard path. Opioid addiction kills over 130 people a day in the United States. While Grey’s excels at representation and showcasing a lot of real-life issues, poor Amelia Shepherd is struggling to be seen realistically.

After all, if that pesky recovering addict backstory is annoying, just blame it on the brain tumor and move on. Why do we watch this show again?


Noah Wyle, you were the true pretty boy of the 90s. Too bad you got stabbed and developed a drug problem. Shows have done a lot to turn their good boys bad, but turning sweet, idealistic John Carter into a recovering addict was just terrible. While audiences might have eaten up the traumatic story of the stabbing and death of Carter’s protege, Lucy, even actor Noah Wyle admits, “That seems like a bit of a stretch for John Carter.” Or, as The Atlantic put it, “When the torch was handed to Wyle, things got excessively dramatic and the character was bogged down by drug addiction subplots.”

Sorry, Carter. Nobody’s buying it.

"The O.C."

California, here we come. The O.C. is one of the absolute worst beloved TV shows to ever grace the small screen. It’s so inherently mockable that Andy Samberg practically built a career off mocking it. Addiction hits a lot of people in Orange County. Kirstin might be the best mom, but boy can she drink. Another big drinker? Absolute worst TV character of all time, Marissa Cooper.

Coop starts off the show as a spoiled little rich girl. Sure, her mom is a hag. Sure, her dad is a felon. But there are plenty of people who deal with less-than-ideal family lives without getting blackout drunk and OD’ing in Tijuana. She sneaks flasks around everywhere, pops pills, leads other people down the path of alcoholism, and generally wrecks everything she touches. Marissa is the kind of teenager parents have nightmares about, and while her constant brushes with death make her obnoxiously unrealistic, her addiction makes addicts everywhere look worse—as if they don’t have enough to worry about.

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