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How Addicts Are Portrayed on TV

There are more drunks and junkies on the tube than ever before. But that's not always a good thing.

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Breaking Bad, Desperate Housewives, Enlightened: faces of the fallen

By Sam Lansky

01/11/12

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I always want to see realistic depictions of addiction in movies and on television, but when it gets too real, I begin to get squeamish. That’s been happening all year on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, where cast member Kim Richards has been battling a well-publicized struggle with addiction. What’s unsettling about Kim Richards is not her consumption of alcohol—we rarely even see her imbibe, let alone take any of the drugs she’s been accused of abusing—but rather observe how utterly wasted she appears to be after years of bad behavior. Her ruddy skin looks beaten by sun and career alcoholism, her blond hair in a brassy tangle or tied up in an untended ponytail; her demeanor is wearied and scattered, as though words don’t come as easily to her as they once did. Her family and the other cast-mates treat her with a wary mixture of pity and frustration, save the unexpected voice of reason, Brandi Glanville, who is far too lovably louche to be bothered with preserving the open secret of Kim’s addictions. Despite the show’s claims of putative “reality,” the fact is that were the show not being taped, Kim’s “friends” would surely have abandoned her altogether a long time ago, since Kim appears to be the sort of late-stage alcoholic many of us have seen stumble into AA meetings clutching a tattered court card and rambling incomprehensibly.

Reality television has long been considered the lowest form of entertainment, and there’s no arguing that there’s something distinctly Roman about the thrill of watching people self-destruct on screen. Still shows like Celebrity Rehab and Intervention make the mistake of attempting to impose a redemptive arc onto stories of addiction that frequently have negative outcomes, fatal outcomes, outcomes that are anything but inspirational. Thus, the best depictions of addiction on reality TV don’t tend to be the ones that were narrativized to be about addiction, but the ones that come at the subject indirectly, unintentionally, or even unwillingly. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills has long seemed resistant to delving into the subject of Kim’s addiction with the enthusiasm that a show about addiction would, which has made the journey of watching it all the more rewarding. It’s realistic because addictions aren’t edited into neatly digestible hours of arced narrative: they’re messy and sprawling, shrouded in secrecy and subtext, alluded to in coded snippets of loaded dialogue and sloppily disproportionate emotional outbursts—and they aren’t always as clear-cut as “alcoholic” or “not.”

Shows like Celebrity Rehab and Intervention make the mistake of attempting to impose a redemptive arc onto stories of addiction that frequently have negative outcomes, fatal outcomes, outcomes that are anything but inspirational.

Because even if none of the ragtag band of juiced-up, crispy guidos and guidettes on Jersey Shore are actually alcoholics, it would be disingenuous to claim they are anything less than problem drinkers. They black out, not occasionally but constantly, scream and brawl, lose their underwear (if they were wearing any in the first place), and totter through the streets of Seaside Heights in a state of dishabille, the girls in platform sandals that would be perilously high even if they weren’t plastered, the men perpetually shirtless, lacquered with a film of gin-sweat. After particularly unpleasant benders, green-faced and chagrined, they frequently make commitments to teetotalism, which are promptly broken within a night or two.

But it’s hard to fault them for only doing what they’re expected, and even compensated, to do; audiences have come to expect hard partying, and there are never any real consequences for the Jersey Shore cast’s bad behavior. This makes the show a surprisingly accurate representation of a segment of the population for whom the stakes are low, middle-class kids with shitty jobs and shallow relationships who value getting wasted and looking good above all else, a lifestyle of low-rent sybaritic pleasures. (These people are real, I swear—I know some of them.) Can alcoholism exist when there is so little to lose? Or do the lines of where problem drinking ends and alcoholism begins shift in accordance with lifestyle and environment? This is what I wonder while watching Jersey Shore—how low the depths of alcoholic desperation are, when the bad behavior is dressed up as socially acceptable “partying.”

That’s not to say that the problem drinking doesn’t occasionally turn more damaging than broken bottles and ugly crying. Although the cast and producers maintain that the Shore house is a drug-free environment, many viewers swear that they can recognize cast member Ronnie Magro’s “coke face” when he seems, well, suspiciously animated; and cast hanger-on Jonathan “The Unit” Manfare was stopped by security trying to enter the Shore house while under the influence of ketamine. (He maintains that he is now sober.) The editors, too, have gotten smarter in how they compile footage, sometimes sneaking in jabs at the cast that tickle me endlessly. In one memorable sequence from last season, Deena Nicole urinates on the street after leaving a nightclub—par for the course for most of the Shore kids—and wipes herself down with a tissue she is carrying in her handbag. The following morning, she is seen using that same tissue, blithely unaware of its intimate usage the night before. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but it also proves that you don’t have to hit bottom to be totally fucking humiliated. 

Addiction as captured on reality TV, at least in shows like The Real Housewives and Jersey Shore, is captured with documentarian grit, then sanded down to a high-gloss finish with slick editing, mood-setting music, and flashy titles to make the final product more palatable while scripted programming on television tends to be either glossy or gritty but not both. 

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