How Addicts Are Portrayed on TV - Page 3

By Sam Lansky 01/11/12
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

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Maybe the hardest of all to watch, for me, is Breaking Bad, which captures the ugliness of human behavior with a richness and dexterity that’s still going strong after four seasons (by which point most great shows peter out.) Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cook Walter White remains TV’s most brilliantly drawn antihero, with supporting characters of considerable texture and complexity. His right-hand-man, the perpetually lost Jesse Pinkman, to whom Aaron Paul brings a heart-crushing apathy, is probably the most realistic addict on television, not because of anything he does but because his disaffected nature is so authentic. He goes through intermittent periods of sobriety, intense addiction, and moderate usage, but he never gets invested in anything other than continuing to get high and produce the means (money, drugs) to get him there. At the same time, he’s not a total husk; something warm and human still beats inside him, even if it’s buried under layers of disenchantment and cool unease. Real addiction anesthetizes the addict from the agony of his feelings, which is why it’s so frustrating when filmmakers and producers give fictional addicts volcanic outbursts of emotion that real addicts would be too numb to ever deliver. Breaking Bad makes many mistakes with storytelling and for—it simply isn’t as flawless as critics like to say it is—but characterologically? It’s a masterpiece.

Amy is a searing portrait of how easy it is to succumb to those all-too-real inconsistencies, with her regressive shifts back into bitch mode serving as a cogent reminder of what early sobriety is like.

But the character who has taught me the most about addiction is Laura Dern’s astonishing Amy Jellicoe on the HBO series Enlightened, who experiences a mental breakdown in her corporate life, heads to a luxurious Hawaii treatment center (which treats emotional issues like Amy’s as well as chemical dependence), and then attempts to come home and reintegrate herself into society. What’s so smart about the execution of this storyline is Amy’s struggle to maintain the serenity that she developed in treatment in a world that seems categorically opposed to providing her with any emotional peace. Her relationship with her mother (Laura Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd, understated in her callousness) provokes her; her soulless corporate job is a source of endless woes; a still-messy entanglement with her ex-husband, a self-serving overgrown party animal who probably is an alcoholic and addict (played by Luke Wilson), is a boundless well of frustration. Amy’s transformation from crazed corporate harpy to placid yoga zombie spouting New Age platitudes with grating earnestness, is remarkable because of how quickly she oscillates from one extreme to another; in one moment, she’ll be a marvel of Zen implacability, in another, she’s spewing profanity over the pettiest of stresses. 

Treatment has changed Amy, and treatment does have the power to change us; whenever we choose to close the door on a pattern of old behavior, there’s an irretrievability to that specific mode of self-destruction we’re leaving behind. But the wreckage of a torn-down past self still remains, and Amy is a searing portrait of how easy it is to succumb to those all-too-real inconsistencies, with her regressive shifts back into bitch mode serving as a cogent reminder of what early sobriety is like. Amy isn’t an alcoholic—she’s probably just a codependent—but in Amy’s credibly smug transformation into and back out of the enlightened woman she’d like to be, I’m reminded of the reality that change isn’t permanent: It’s a process of recursion, of trial and error, of maddening and impossible reconciliations of authentic and aspirational selves. Enlightenment shows us that recovery is about taking one step forward only to take two steps back, and there’s nothing more squirm-inducingly real than that.

Sam Lansky is an editor at Wetpaint and a regular contributor to The Fix who also wrote about Britney Spears and dating in sobriety, among many other topics. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/samlansky.

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