How TV Has Changed the Channel on Addiction
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How TV Has Changed the Channel on Addiction


addiction on televisionThanks to a new crop of TV shows, audiences are finally seeing addiction and recovery for what it very often is: common, awkward and hard as hell. A recent Salon essay by writer (and featured interviewee at AfterParty) Sarah Hepola examines “TV’s quiet 12-step revolution,” singling out new comedies such as Flaked and Love for their honest, accurate depictions of recovery. As Hepola says: “A batch of TV shows, all of them streaming or online, are showing more nuanced portraits of recovery than we’ve ever seen on television, and they’re asking the same questions problem drinkers ask themselves.” For me, they’re precisely what I’ve been waiting for.

Sobriety is No House of Cards

When I first stopped drinking, I threw myself into Netflix, Hulu and YouTube as hard as I threw myself into my sobriety. Probably harder. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was desperate to find any shred of my alcoholism on my MacBook screen. I needed all my misdeeds, lies and embarrassments played back to me. I figured maybe filtered through fiction, my fogged memories could become clearer. I craved windows into other alcoholics’ lives. I didn’t want secondhand stories from the AA rooms—I needed to witness their bottoms as much as I wanted front-row seats to their delirious, short-sighted highs. At first, I scoured my DVD collection for answers, but I quickly discovered I wasn’t going to get to the root of my drinking problem in Moonraker any faster than I’d understand why I owned a copy of Bedazzled with Brendan Fraser. So, I looked for portrayals of addiction on television.

Hepola does more than just count examples from this welcome wave of TV. In these shows, alcoholism isn’t used as a random character flaw or twisted into a cheap cliffhanger. They show what treatment and recovery really look like. As she smartly observes: “Nobody is going to fact-check you, nobody is even going to challenge you, so you are whoever you say you are, which can be a lot of rope to give a damaged human being.” I’d never actually given this any real thought—the way those sitting next to me in an AA room don’t really exist to me anywhere beyond that room. Their outside lives are trees falling in woods that I’m not around to hear.

Hepola points out just how good these shows are at capturing the façades we sometimes create for ourselves in sobriety. We’re good at lying to ourselves, and sometimes it’s that windless dead zone between what we want to believe and what we know to be true that’s the hardest to capture on screen. The closer a movie, TV show, or book gets to the mark, the more compelling it is. I don’t want the cartoon version of the alcoholic—I want the alcoholic that’s so much like me that I cringe. We’re oftentimes the unreliable narrators of our own lives, so it’s refreshing to see alcoholic characters rendered with such care and clarity.

How Johnny Fever Ruined Me

As a child of 1980s TV, you’d think my brain would’ve been rotted by an endless stream of The Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider and The Fall Guy. That’s not necessarily untrue, but those shows don’t have the sway over me they should. Their intros remain Next-Level Awesome, but that’s beside the point. They’re not the memories that imprinted themselves onto my impressionable brain. No, I have three very distinct TV memories from my early childhood:

  1. Linda Carter spinning around in place, transforming into Wonder Woman. (This will always be #1.)
  2. Accidentally catching Poltergeist on Showtime one afternoon—horrified to watch a piece of steak crawl across a kitchen countertop, then erupt with maggots.
  3. WKRP’s Johnny Fever playing a drinking game on air.

Number three is admittedly one of the weirdest TV memories a child could carry into adulthood—and yet, it’s as indelible as it’s been corrosive. Apparently, in the episode “Fish Story,” WKRP deejays Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap have a drink every fifteen minutes and have a state trooper continually test their reflexes and judgment. Naturally, with each drink, Johnny’s reflexes improve. Hilarity ensues. More importantly, the audience laughter gets louder every time.

I clearly remember this. As a six-year-old, this shaped me. I don’t know why, but it did. It’s the first memory I have of seeing a drunk person on television—maybe even in real life—and it was a positive one. I mean, unseen people were literally laughing at him. Johnny Fever was getting faster, wittier, better. I don’t know why I’ve harbored this memory for so long, but it’s done more damage to me than any hail of aimless A-Team bullets ever could. No amount of onscreen violence could ever compete with seeing drunk people having a good time.

“Maybe it will work for you.”

Hepola’s essay zeroes in on a moment I cherished from Netflix’s Love. It’s a fleeting, hushed exchange between Mickey, the main character, and her neighbor. They’re sitting in the backyard when her neighbor reveals, while drinking wine, that she’d tried AA on for size for a couple of years. “It didn’t work for me,” she admits, almost with a shrug, “but maybe it will work for you.” It’s not judging, it’s not preachy and it’s certainly not dismissive. It’s just honest. It’s this sort of honesty that underscores how alcoholics are now being portrayed. For some reason, it’s fitting that it’s a “classic” sitcom that stands out to me, all these years later, as one of my first drinking memories. My life as an alcoholic was much the same thing—false, shoddily written, populated with caricatures. When my kids catch their first depiction of on-screen alcoholism, I’d rather it be authentic. I want it to have four walls and dimensional characters. At the very least, I hope it’s true and not played for laughs.

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About Author

Paul Fuhr is an addiction recovery writer whose work has appeared in The Literary Review, The Live Oak Review, The Sobriety Collective and InRecovery Magazine, among others. He is the author of the alcoholism memoir “Bottleneck.” He's also the creator and co-host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and recovery. Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and their cats, Dr. No and Goldeneye.