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Is Alcoholism Evolving on TV?

Mad Men is a stylish example of a new trend that updates old stereotypes of problem drinking on the small screen.

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Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm Photo via

By May Wilkerson

03/21/12

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Sick, smoldering alcoholic Don Draper returns on Sunday in the long-awaited new season of Mad Men—arguably TV's most groundbreaking portrayal of addiction yet. In a fascinating article, Atlantic writer Scott Meslow observes how small-screen depictions of alcoholism have evolved; once featured mainly as comedic sidekicks, alcoholics are now more often characters with whom we can empathize. Meslow cites Don Draper as the perfect example of a more nuanced TV addict: a complex character with an illness, eliciting compassion despite many flaws. Mad Men's collection of alcoholic leading characters rivals any TV show in history—and while the show's "Cocktail Culture" might glamorize drinking, it doesn't shy away from showing some chaotic and shameful consequences. Ad exec Freddy Rumson is fired after wetting himself during a board meeting, and Don Draper's drinking leaves his personal and professional life in tatters.

Much has changed since the days when TV alcoholics were usually buffoons and the butt of jokes (Otis Campbell, the town drunk in The Andy Griffith Show, was a prime example). But many shows—such as Two and a Half Men and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia—still mine alcoholism for laughs, trivialize it, or avoid addressing it altogether. Other shows, such as FX's Rescue Me, play up the drama of alcoholism by buying into another cliché of the "long-suffering" but functional alcoholic. Meslow does question Mad Men's lack of addicted female characters, as well as issues like the unreasonably slick physical appearance of main characters hitting bottom. But it still signals a change in the way addiction is televised, and the potential to educate viewers about alcoholism and addiction. "They say as soon as you have to cut down on your drinking, you have a drinking problem," said Don Draper at the end of last season—words that may cause some to pause before their next cocktail.

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