When you have an entire series about an ER nurse's ethically compromising prescription drug abuse, you only hope they do the problem justice. Fortunately for Showtime—and for us—the gifted Falco perfectly captures the conflicted heart of pill-popping Jackie Peyton. Stealing from work to support her habit and even trading sex for drugs, Jackie is an unlikely protagonist—but her love for her children, her wit and her genuine devotion to helping patients keep us rooting for her. Last season, Jackie angrily denied to her husband and co-workers that she had a problem but thanks to Falco's complicated portrayal, you just know that Jackie realizes the unsustainable nature of her habit. A few episodes later, Jackie’s fellow nurse and friend O’Hara decided to wean Jackie off her pills by controlling and gradually decreasing her dosage. It’s nice to see a show acknowledge that treatment doesn’t exclusively mean rehab (although it could come to that).
For the first few seasons of this sixties-set dramedy, characters who technically qualified as alcoholics seemed to drink without repercussions in a competitive business world. Whether that was an oversight or a bait-and-switch, the brilliant AMC show has in recent seasons started deconstructing the difficult, dissatisfied life of Don Draper. No longer can we see the frequently blackout drunk ad exec as a boozy product of his era. Recent episodes have examined how his drinking compromises his work (see: stealing and selling an ad slogan while inebriated). The series has also done more to make it clear that his barely-remembered binges make life harder for those around him. Could his bottom be near?
New York firefighter Tommy Gavin's status as a recovering alcoholic has, in recent seasons, leaned toward off-the-wagon territory, showing viewers how a strong-willed, nearly fearless man can still fall prey to habit and temptation. The show itself has been uncompromising in showing how addictive behavior can be hard to shake even when you know the danger and heartbreak firsthand: although Tommy's son and another character's wife died due to drunk driving, he and other characters still get behind the wheel while wasted. But Tommy's greatest personal torment has been watching his daughter's willful descent into alcoholism, knowing that it’s something she undoubtedly learned from him. His family's attempts to cure her—including drunkenly crashing an AA meeting and force-baptizing her in liquor—haven't exactly gone well, but in general, the story of the Gavin family working to end the cycle of alcoholism has provided for some laudable, platitude-free episodes.
Cable often deals with addiction the most, which is no shock, but it is a surprise that network primetime's best exploration of it is on a cartoon show. Of course, The Simpsons is no ordinary 'toon. Although Homer's devotion to Duff Beer and his constant inebriation (and ensuing self-humiliation) are played for laughs, they're the kind of jokes that stick in your throat once the punch line passes. From the depressing, dead-end dive that is Moe's Tavern to the dead-on spoofs of beer commercials as sexist and pandering, The Simpsons offers the harshest satire of American booze culture on network TV. In one episode, Marge challenges Homer to go 30 days without drinking after a questionnaire reveals he's an alcoholic. (“Do you ever drink alone?" she asks, to which he replies, "Does the Lord count as a person?") Homer achieves his month-long sobriety goal (with noticeable weight loss and $100 savings to boot) but immediately heads out to get "loaded" in spite of Marge's protests. But when he returns to his local watering hole after a hiatus, he finally sees how drinking has ruined the lives of every half-conscious barfly and returns home to his wife. (Of course, this doesn't last—it is a sitcom after all).
Another popular network TV addict is Hugh Laurie's Dr. House, a Vicodin-abusing, misanthropic yet brilliant doctor who heads a team of diagnosticians at a teaching hospital. Although suffering from a legitimate leg injury, House undoubtedly overcompensates with his illegal on-and-off-again Vicodin abuse. After a successful withdrawal period, the tortured medical genius is back on Vicodin this season since being dumped by his girlfriend, which led to an interesting episode where he indulged in an orgy of hookers, Vicodin and risky behavior to treat his depression. Although he somehow managed to solve a medical mystery from the comfort of his luxury hotel suite while in the midst of his drugged haze, the episode ended on a significantly dour note: in spite of his indulgent self-medication and attempt at a controlled binge, he was seemingly more depressed, which led to even greater risk-taking. It’s a refreshingly realistic view of the way it tends to go, from one of the most mainstream shows around.
A satire of Hollywood excess that almost turned into a glorification of it for a few seasons, Entourage is back on track in its final season, which finds the once-in-demand young actor exiting rehab and trying to pull his career and life back together. Gone is the Vince Chase of last season who dated a porn star, showed up to meetings drunk and/or high on cocaine, and got into a fistfight at Eminem’s party. In his place is a humbler character intent on proving to his self that he can retake his life. But Entourage isn't just impressive for showing us how Hollywood and fame can send some down the path of addiction (that's a rather familiar story). The show has actually gone above and beyond by showing how Vince's deeply committed group of friends were able to rally together in spite of personal issues and get him sober. Don’t smirk—Entourage actually reveals the complicated, messy dynamics of family and friendship that can nevertheless help a person have a second chance.
The matriarch of the Bluth family is a modern update on the martini-sipping socialites of '30s screwball comedies: sharp-tongued, conniving and almost always tipsy. But unlike the witty lushes of the 30s, Lucille's dry martinis and dry wit keep her at arm's length from those around her, including her children and husband, all of whom regard her with suspicion and hostility (with the exception of dependent man-child Buster). Whether misinterpreting the drowsy eye on prescription drugs as a winking eye suggesting she have a drink or lying to her children and saying that vodka goes bad once you open the bottle, Lucille is one of the more extreme alcoholics on a network sitcom. Not exactly a warning, but hardly an endorsement either.
If Entourage gently ribs indulgent, self-centered people, Californication is a pie-in-the-face satire of hedonistic excess. Hank Moody is a sex-addicted novelist who spends more time boozing and seducing than writing. And while we're invited to laugh at the situations he gets himself into, this last season's finale left no doubt as to the show's moral allegiances. After it became public that he had sex with a 16-year-old girl (without knowing her age), Hank's life was all but destroyed: the ensuing statutory rape trial (and guilty verdict) tainted his public image and humiliated his daughter and her mother, seemingly the only two people Hank actually cares about. Sure, a lot of this show is for laughs, but Californication doesn't shy away from showing how Hank’s sex addiction —as of yet uncured—has ruined his relationships and gift for writing, making him an unexpectedly resonant tragicomic figure.
His constant presence at the bar, the ever-present beer in hand and the fact that Sam turns to NASA in the finale to figure out Norm's sizable bar tab all qualify him as an alcoholic, but Norm is hardly an "addict" in the same way that a lot of these other characters are. Really, the most harm his drinking does to him has to do with his weight ("What's shaking Norm?" "Four cheeks and a couple chins") and the fact that drinking keeps him from his wife. But then again, since we barely see her, it's not like we really care—for all intents and purposes, he might as well be married to Cliff. Which, when you think about it, is kind of sad.
Not as much of a clear-cut alcoholic as Tommy Gavin or even Homer Simpson, Al Bundy is one of those characters who, when you really think about it, easily fits the bill: he drinks beer constantly, hardly moves from his firmly entrenched butt imprint on the couch, and tellingly has no sex drive to speak of (idling ogling women in beer commercials notwithstanding). Over the course of the show, we learn that Al married Peg only because of inebriation and that he comes from alcoholic parents. Yeah, it's too much of a stretch to read Al Bundy as a "warning" or satire, but it's fair to say that no one wants their life to resemble Bundy's unhappy parade of failures. In that sense, he's a gentle send-up of the American guy who drinks just a bit too much beer—he's not a stumbling, incoherent buffoon, but just enough of an over-indulger that his boozing tempers his lust for life.
The critically worshipped HBO series did a brilliant job of detailing the various facets of drug culture, from the dealers to the junkies to the cops trying to bust them. As with real life, the show depicted unrepentant addicts on both sides of the drug war, but it's most resonant was probably the police-informant heroin junkie known as "Bubbles" (his real name is eventually revealed to be Reginald Cousins). Stealing and squealing to get by and to support his habit, Bubbles is nevertheless one of the most warmly human and compassionate characters in a morally ambiguous series. His repeated attempts to clean up his veins and his life don't always pan out, but he remains a steadfast friend and protector of the teenage junkie he looks after. And even when he relapses, Royo captures the disappointment and helplessness in Bubbles' eyes as he lives a physically and emotionally taxing lifestyle he knows has to change.
A recovering alcoholic for most of the pioneering series’ 12-year-run, the eternally irritable Sipowicz is one of the most realistic portrayals of addiction in TV history. Drunk in the first episode and estranged from his wife and son because of his boozing, Sipowicz gave it up after a six-bullet brush with death. Nevertheless, his struggles to stay sober—and his hardly coincidental volatility—remained a major part of the whole of the series. Giving us plotlines about his uneasy relationship with his AA sponsor and his temporary relapse after his son is killed, NYPD Blue didn’t shy away from showing its viewers how alcohol can linger as a major force even after the last sip.
Joe Lynch grew up in Saint Paul, MN, and is now yet another writer living in Brooklyn. You can find his writing in Entertainment Weekly, Yahoo TV and New York Magazine's Vulture. He previously wrote about Intervention for The Fix.