As TV dramas become more realistic, small-screen addicts are often given a shot at recovery. Many attend 12-step meetings, depicted with varying degrees of similarity to the real thing. But recovery, for them, is often fleeting: Characters in long-term sobriety, like The West Wing's Leo McGarry, are probably in a minority. And when TV's addicts do pick up a drink or drug again, it's rarely just a "slip" or a period of quiet misery. Instead, an on-screen relapse tends to begin a relentless downward spiral that adds spectacularly to the drama; characters routinely ruin relationships, get jailed, or die from an accident or OD. In real life, as is often said in AA, “Relapse is not a requirement.” Although certainly a part of the addiction and recovery story, relapses are less inevitable than primetime shows suggest. But then, how much reality do we really expect from TV?
Herman "Duck" Phillips is in recovery when he's hired by Don Draper as Sterling Cooper's new head of account services in Season One. In Season Two, he makes a power play, becoming president of the company. He's then politically out-foxed, and his resentments, plus sadness over the end of his marriage, lead him to drink again. Season Four sees him plunge headlong off the wagon at the CLIO awards, where he heckles the MC and is escorted from the premises, prompting Roger Sterling (a picture of exquisite drunken maintenance) to quip, "I miss working with that guy." Later, Duck roams the office after hours, and is seen lowering his pants in order to defecate on Roger Sterling's sofa. After Peggy escorts him out, saving the couch, Duck tells her she is a whore—prompting Draper to come to her rescue and resulting in a fight between the two men. After winning the fight, Duck asks triumphantly, "Still think you're better than me?"
Firefighter Tommy is an ill-tempered, relapsed alcoholic who struggles to cope with trauma from the events of September 11. He eventually completes a full year without a drink, but relapses due to grief when he’s interviewed about 9/11 by a French journalist. As he walks out of the restaurant, Tommy leaves his 12-month chip at the bottom of his glass. An intervention attempt by his family is not only unsuccessful, but leads to Tommy convincing most of them to start drinking again too. Their boozing ultimately leads to the death of co-worker Teddy’s wife, Ellie, in a drunken car crash, for which Teddy holds Tommy responsible. Teddy later shoots Tommy twice in the shoulder at the bar where they work and forces his friends at gunpoint to watch him bleed out on the floor.
In this popular Netflix show, Peter’s penchant for women, vodka and cocaine ultimately leads to him being used as a political pawn by Rep. Francis “Frank” Underwood, a Democrat from South Carolina’s 5th congressional district. Underwood extorts a political favor and then uses blackmail to win Peter’s unquestioning loyalty, recruiting Congressional staffer Doug Stamper to be his AA sponsor. Doug and Frank use Peter’s newfound sobriety as a political tool, urging him to exaggerate the length of his sobriety and talk about his drinking while denying any drug use. Doug counsels Peter throughout—then teams up with Frank to tempt Peter to relapse so they can destroy his campaign. But even though Peter falls off the wagon, the recovery process has changed him; he resolves to be honest about his slip and try again. “I need to take responsibility for my actions,” he tells Frank.
Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli): The Sopranos
Moltisanti's addiction is in the family; his mother is an alcoholic and his father was a drug addict. This doesn't stop him from regularly associating with heavy drug users. In Season Four, he's car-jacked by a Latino gang while trying to score heroin and accidentally kills his girlfriend Adriana’s dog by sitting on it while high. Tony Soprano orders him to rehab and he remains clean until late in Season Five, when he relapses after Adriana is executed by the mob. He gets back on the wagon and starts attending AA meetings in Season Six. But he then crashes his car while clearly under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Coughing up blood, he pleads for Tony’s help, but all Tony can see is a tree branch impaling a car seat where Christopher’s daughter could have been. He pinches Christopher’s nostrils shut, choking him to death.
Bubbles is first seen as a homeless drug addict who runs a scam operation creating counterfeit money with his best friend, Johnny Weeks. After he is nearly killed by gang members while trying to steal drugs, Bubbles gets clean. He then starts using again at the end of Season One when his mentor, Detective Kima Greegs, is shot. Bubbles is arrested at the end of Season Two while trying to steal needles and morphine from an ambulance—but that’s the last time he's seen attempting to use. He attempts to help his old friend Weeks get clean, but after Weeks dies from an OD at the end of Season Three, Bubbles avoids the temptation to do drugs himself. By the beginning of Season Five, he’s been clean for over a year, with the help of NA and his sponsor Walon. He holds down a job selling newspapers and volunteers at a Catholic Worker soup kitchen.
Dr. House struggles with a raging Vicodin addiction throughout this show, but it comes to a head at the end of Season Five after a series of vivid hallucinations. In Season Six, he checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, then remains in rehab for several episodes. Newly sober, he returns to work at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital—only to relapse when his longtime love Lisa Cuddy undergoes surgery for a potentially cancerous tumor in Season Seven. House is unable to cope with her potential death, or any of his emotions, without Vicodin; once Lisa realizes this, she ends their relationship, triggering him to use even more. In the next episode, he’s swallowing Vicodin by the handful at an expensive hotel, eventually jumping off his balcony and landing in the pool. Some young bar patrons come to watch, prompting House to yell, “What do you do when you lose?" “Party harder!” they yell back.
In the Season Six premiere, Hank wakes up in a hospital after his unstable ex, Carrie, gives him an overdose of drugs and then kills herself with the same cocktail. Grieving over the loss, he goes on a month-long bender that leads to him throwing up on a pile of cocaine with bad-boy rocker Atticus Finch. Hank's family then stage what he calls the “worst intervention ever.” He enters rehab and maintains his sobriety—until being granted a field trip out of the facility to escort his friend Faith, who he met in rehab, to the funeral of her dead rock star boyfriend. Having received a pre-funeral blow job from Faith, he runs into Finch at the service. The pair do lines of cocaine after the funeral and the rocker promises that their assholes will be “tongued by the angels.”
Playing the love interest of Jesse Pinkman, Margolis is a recovering heroin addict who relapses towards the end of Season Two. Pinkman kicks Margolis out of his apartment, because he wants to do crystal meth after the murder of his friend Combo, but doesn’t want her to risk a relapse. She suggests taking him to a support meeting; after he refuses, she instead decides to follow him into his bedroom. Later, Margolis is seen mixing a meth-and-heroin speedball. In the next episode, she begins ducking out on her NA meetings and identifying herself as “Jesse’s junkie girlfriend.” Later Walt, Jesse's meth-biz partner, walks into Jesse’s apartment to see the pair asleep in bed. Margolis asphyxiates on her own vomit while Walt watches, allowing her to die.
This former relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox had his career cut short due to alcoholism before the series starts, but he maintains his sobriety as a recovering alcoholic while bar-tending at the Cheers bar. His relationship with Diane ends at the conclusion of Season Two, and he's shown relapsing in the two-part Season Three premiere entitled “Rebound.” With the help of Coach, Diane and Frasier, Sam regains his sobriety and is not shown drinking again. But he is later forced to address his sex addiction, after both Rebecca and Carla turn down his marriage proposals by confronting him about his past womanizing. In the final season, he begins to participate in Dr. Robert Sutton’s group meetings, advised by Frasier, and turns over a new leaf; in a 1995 episode of Frasier, Malone appears as a self-identified sex addict committed to changing himself through group meetings.
Sackler's alcoholism comes to light in Season One when his girlfriend, Hannah, finds out from a friend at a bar that he's in AA. It turns out he has been sober and attending meetings since he was 17 years old. He has remained sober since—until he runs into Hannah, now his ex, towards the end of Season Two. Having desperately tried to get in touch with her to no avail, seeing Hannah face-to-face triggers Adam’s resentments and he walks into the bar, where he orders a whiskey and ginger. "Are you sure?" asks his new girlfriend, Natalia. And he says: "Yeah, I wanna be able to have a nice time with you." Later that night he degrades Natalia, in what some have described as a sexual assault scene.
McCarton Ackerman is a frequent contributor to The FIx. His work has also appeared in Time Out New York, The Huffington Post, abcnews.com and usopen.org. He recently wrote about the 10 most memorable TV interventions.
"I think admitting to having a problem in general is the right first step, but to admit powerlessness is unhealthy. .. I think admitting powerlessness is more harmful because it doesn't help. Admitting that you want and need help is more useful after admittance."
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