Drinking on Television: The Good Fight

By vernacula 04/03/19
exploding wine.jpg

Drinking on television deserves a lot more attention than it gets, especially now that it's on the rise. Though we've seen some odd examples lately, such as CNN hosts doing shots (and encouraging viewers to do the same), TV drama has been awash in alcohol for most of the twenty-first century. Why? One reason commonly given is the medium's increasing naturalism. Vulture's Amos Barshad, for example, writes, "Nowadays, every show that aims for some basic level of verisimilitude has to acknowledge that alcohol plays a part in the lives of its adult characters."

It's news to me that verisimilitude is something television ever aims for, but, even if it were, alcohol is not as universal as Mr. Barshad suggests, as only about thirty percent of the population drink regularly. But, since the folks who produce television (and who write about television) are in that thirty percent, I get why he and others might think that TV is simply becoming more true-to-life.

But Lance Strate, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham, offers a better explanation: the growth was generated by an increase in alcohol product placement, which, in film, doubled over the past two decades. Alcohol advertising is limited by guidelines prohibiting actual consumption, and there are only so many ways to pour a drink, hoist it in the air, or hand it to an attractive person before viewers start noticing that nobody has taken a sip. But programming can show as much drinking as advertisers will pay for--and I suppose it's a credit to the networks that they didn't start hoovering up that money a lot earlier. No matter, they're making up for lost time now.

More and more, television reflects the culture's binary view of alcohol: it's a super-fabulous commodity, healthy and fun, that is occasionally perverted into a problem by flawed individuals: the alcoholic, the drunk driver (or the alcohol lobby's new villain, the hardcore drunk driver). On TV, alcohol use tends to be happy and uncomplicated, even in large quantities, until one of these figures moves to the center of the frame and becomes A Problem. The effect is like flipping a switch: beer commercial to "responsible" drinking PSA. Though the shift looks like social responsibility, it's actually a containment strategy, a way to admit what's perfectly obvious, that alcohol (like all drugs) mingles risks and rewards, then locate the "risk" part in suboptimal choices made by particular individuals, rather than in the nature of the commodity. That commodity can then go back to being super-fabulous and problem-free.

So today, I'm going to talk about how TV sells alcohol, even when it's not flashing particular brand names. The only way to do that substantively is to look at a particular show, so I've picked one I like, The Good Fight, which has just begun its third season. It's a good example because it's not overly focused on drinking, unlike Mad Men or Drunk History, so it can furnish a more representative view of television's ongoing treatment of alcohol. Because I didn't have time to re-watch the first season, I'll focus on the second and the two episodes of the third that have aired. Those fifteen episodes promoted a positive, coherent picture of alcohol organized around six overlapping themes that should be familiar to anyone with a television set.

Theme #1: Alcohol belongs in the workplace.

The lawyers of Riddick Bozeman Lockhart all have liquor bottles in their offices, some in drawers, some on service carts. Those bottles come out frequently, and I can recall only one time that anybody (Adrian) waved away a drink (champagne) for any reason (he was busy). Normally, everyone present drinks, sometimes quite a lot. Season two represented the apotheosis of workplace alcohol because Riddick Bozeman Lockhart threw an unsuccessful party that left stacked boxes of beer, champagne, and liquor piled in one of the partner's offices for the rest of the season. There they stood, peeking out from behind the actors, a symbol of the central place of alcohol in professional life.

Not that we needed reminding. In the series' famous title sequence, a series of objects explodes in ultra-slow motion, each representing a feature of heroine Diane Lockhart's professional life: books of case law, the firm's lavish flower arrangements; office furniture, executive toys, computers, phones, suits, and handbags. Alcohol is prominent among these objects, especially in the second season, which features two bottles of "Chateau Mademoiselle" exploding into lacy clouds of aerosolized wine that expand for a full sixteen seconds. It looks exquisite, actually, which brings me to the next theme.

Theme #2: Alcohol is beautiful.

Yes, lots of things on the show are beautiful: the clothes, the accessories, the hair, the furniture, and the views from the partners' offices at night. But lots of things aren't beautiful, too. To understand the special treatment of alcohol on the series, all we have to do is compare it to the treatment of food. In the second season, almost nobody eats, and when they do, the food is déclassé and meant to show the eater in a bad light: noodles in a cup slurped by an incompetent public defender; a giant pizza on a metal stand offered by a manipulative FBI agent;  bagels and cream cheese crammed into the mouths of fatuous political appointees. Food is ugly and not worthy to pass the lips of our heroes--and it doesn't, except when pregnancy makes Luca Quinn eat a few vending-machine cookies.

Alcohol, on the other hand, is gorgeous: served in crystal and lighted to glow as a glass is raised to drink or handed to another or placed on a table. Seriously, at the start the third season, pay attention to the scene in which partners Adrian Bozeman and Liz Riddick have an evening heart-to-heart. Watch the amber light in Adrian's glass travel with him as he walks halfway across the room; that glow is the work of a lighting tech, not a happy accident. Watch the close-up of the two classes clinking in a toast. The lighting and shot composition recall upscale liquor advertising and have the same effect: to aestheticize alcohol, efface the dual nature it shares with all drugs and make it jewel-like, precious and stable.

Theme #3: Got stress? Get drunk!

It's an article of faith in film and TV that heavy alcohol consumption is the best way to telegraph a character's inner turmoil. Why bother to shoot an angsty monologue when ten seconds of silent, solitary drinking gets the same message across? Yes, such drinking honors the "show, don't tell" rule that governs good dramaturgy; the problem lies its constant use, which normalizes overdrinking as a response to stress. Red wine is the usual tipple of the over-stressed modern woman on TV, but Diane prefers whiskey. I would love to know if a trade organization such as the American Distilling Institute is paying for that preference, but, regardless, her choice blurs the line between alcohol use and alcohol abuse. For example, toward the end of season two, Diane drinks three whiskies during a very brief conversation with her husband Kurt. A half hour into episode eleven, she tosses back the first drink, nodding for a refill in under 30 seconds. She takes a sip of the second, pauses for two minutes to discuss a possible divorce, then chugs the rest when Kurt leaves to ponder the possibility. Three minutes and 24 seconds after ordering her first drink, she orders her third, after which the scene ends. Assuming she finishes the drink, even very slowly, that's three times the recommended daily limit for women and well on the way to "binge drinking," defined as four drinks within two hours. A lot of booze, yet Diane looks fresh and healthy, her hair still damp from her Aikido class, where the sixty-something character works out by throwing men and women half her age. The message: today's stressed woman drinks like a man (and then some), but it doesn't affect her health one bit!

And it's not just Diane who responds to stress with alcohol. A moment ago, I mentioned the cases of beer, champagne, and liquor still stacked in the offices of Riddick Bozeman Lockhart after the failed party. During the last episode of the season, after a really rough day, while a half-dozen principal characters wait anxiously for Luca to give birth, Adrian grabs a bottle and says, "I'm cracking one open. I think we need it." But, as the "medicinal" champagne is being passed around, the phone rings to set up the next theme.

Theme #4: Celebration demands alcohol.

Luca has delivered a boy, transforming stress to jubilation, so the champagne that began as medicine metamorphoses into an expression of joy and unity. What a protean beverage! And the lawyers of Riddick Bozeman Lockhart drink even more when they're happy than they do when they're stressed, which is saying something. “Good thing no one showed up to our party," grins the normally dour Julius Caine, "we have 20 cases of these.” To rousing cheers, three people open champagne bottles and begin to pour. After a solemn toast to the new baby, the six people in the room get down to some serious drinking. A few minutes of TV time later, Diane throws an empty champagne bottle into a large trash can full of empties. The hour is late; only the named partners remain in the room, and another theme is on its way.

Theme #5: In vino veritas.

If you want honesty, from yourself or another person, you'd better get to drinking. On The Good Fight, most of the philosophical conversations, most of the great personal insights, even a lot of the strategy breakthroughs are alcohol-fueled. This time, champagne spurs reflection upon politics, history, justice, the law, and conscience, as well as what Diane will tell the grand jury she faces the next day. Though speaking a trifle slowly, the three lawyers seem astonishingly lucid, given the trash can full of empties, still visible in every medium shot of Diane, plus the three open champagne bottles scattered around the office. At a minimum, each character has consumed a bottle of champagne over a couple of hours, with a bottle and a half or even two per person more in line with the empties we can see. From drunk lawyers in their sixties, I'd expect as much excrementum as veritas at this point, but the magic champagne at Riddick Bozeman Lockhart doesn't provoke specious wisdom, self-aggrandizing insights or foolhardy plans--or anything else you'd expect from a night of heavy drinking. Which bring us to our last point.

Theme #6: Alcohol is 99.5 percent consequence-free.

Just a few hours after drinking all that champagne, Adrian, Diane, and Liz appear rested, healthy, and perfectly groomed, ready to put the previous night's veritas into action. No one's hand trembles as they reach for a coffee cup or pass a sheet of paper. No one's eyes look puffy and bloodshot. No one appears confused or exhausted; no one turns pale in mid-sentence and runs to the nearest toilet, as anyone familiar with the morning after a champagne binge might expect. Instead, the lawyers carry out their ingenious plans with precision and finesse--and look fabulous doing it. When it comes to the consequences of alcohol abuse, The Good Fight depicts even fewer than most TV shows. On most shows, until characters become A Problem (see paragraph three), the effects of their heavy drinking range from none to mildly comic, i.e. wearing sunglasses to work the next morning or grimacing while asking very quiet coworkers to lower their voices.  This discomfort yields quickly to vigorous exercise or somebody's grandmother's hangover cure, but even the comic hangover is optional on The Good Fight, as episode three makes clear.  

"We are gonna get so drunk tonight," says Marissa Gold after opening an envelope filled with fake ricin. She and Maia Rindell, her fellow fake-ricin victim, go out to a bar and  get hammered, their intoxication underscored by more talk about drinking plus observers' comments such as, "God, you guys are sloshed!" As a long-time TV viewer, I readied myself to see them both in sunglasses the next morning, but, nope, Marissa showed up unaffected--and sharp enough to spot the clue that would save the firm's big case, which involved (fake irony alert) different drunken behavior.[1] She was also frisky enough to jump her new boyfriend in the elevator a few minutes later. The message: drinking a lot is really fun and rarely causes problems!

It's hard not to feel alienated when you stop or radically change your drinking behavior. The media that encouraged your drinking don't stop celebrating this thing that has hurt and betrayed you. You may think you're imagining the cheerleading, that, just because you can't have alcohol (or don't want it, or want it but don't want to want it), your mind is suddenly seeing alcohol everywhere, idealized and alluring as hell. But it's not your imagination; it's a mix of deliberate marketing and ideology devised and disseminated by people with a stake in how the culture perceives alcohol. You know that idea I mentioned at the beginning of this post, that alcohol is healthy and problem-free until it's ingested by a certain kind of person? According to the American Medical Association, the alcohol industry has been deliberately pushing that notion since the repeal of Prohibition. You just don't know it because journalists, even really good ones, don't cover the shenanigans of Big Alcohol the way they cover Big Tobacco or Big Pharma. So it's up to us to watch shows such as The Good Fight with fresh eyes, skeptical minds, and some knowledge of how propaganda works--and to remind one another of how influential that propaganda can be.

One last thought: the title sequence for season three features a lot of coffee, for the first time. Wine and liquor still explode, but now they're joined by exploding ceramic coffee services. Makes me wonder if Diane's drinking is about to become A Problem . . ..

Vernacula blogs about alcohol and culture at www.thesoberheretic.com.

[1] The drunken behavior in question is sexual assault, which is a nod in the direction of alcohol's negative effects. BUT those effects are managed by moving them "offstage" and by assigning them to (1) bad actors and (2) unenlightened men. In the case that Marissa solves, a reality show contestant is raped by another contestant after the producers deliberately intoxicate the cast by denying them food for many hours and offering a "tequila bar" instead. The rapist genuinely thinks he has done nothing wrong, and our heroes work both to show him that he's wrong and to spread the blame to an industry that relies on alcohol to provoke drama. The message: yes, alcohol can be dangerous in extreme cases, such as when it is cynically misused by exploitative TV producers. The Good Fight needs to condemn that danger--but do it in a way that doesn't affect the positive view of alcohol that dominates the show. So it's moved offstage, where we hear about it, rather than witness it, and where it affects characters we don't care about. There's no spillover onto the unproblematic drinking of the main characters. This point is probably important enough to pull out of the footnotes, but I need to get this post up so I can get back to work. And don't footnote-readers (assuming there are any) deserve a special tidbit once in a while?


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