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Art Imitating Life: TV Dramas Mirror Addiction in Society

Most drug addiction experts will tell you: the economy does impact addiction rates. As economic stress takes its toll, many people find themselves drinking a bit more alcohol or asking the doctor for anti-anxiety medication or sleeping pills. Some of those people will become addicted. Film and TV often reflect societal trends, and right now addiction is a driving or omnipresent theme in not only reality series such as A&E’s Intervention and Drew Pinsky’s Celebrity Rehab, but in many traditional television dramas.

House has been around for a few years, but could be considered the forerunner of addiction-centered characterization. Hugh Lori plays Dr. House, a brilliant diagnostician with a nasty Vicodin-popping habit. Although the reactions of his co-workers are unrealistic at best and downright absurd at worst (what hospital would allow one of its doctors to obnoxiously rub his addiction in everyone’s face?), the story of his descent into debilitating addiction is compelling. At the end of this past season, House’s hallucinations motivated his best friend to drop him off at a psychiatric hospital.

The latest addition to addiction drama is Nurse Jackie, another hospital-centered series that reflects the growing issue of drug addiction among health care workers. Nurse Jackie is even more centered on addiction as the driving force. The central focus of her life is to obtain pain medication, usually through by lying to and manipulating family, friends, and co-workers.

The show truly captures the lengths to which a prescription drug addict will go to feed the need. She pretends to be single so she can develop a sexual relationship with the hospital pharmacist who slips her pain medication when she complains about her back. She barely conceals her lack of concern for how a new automated medication dispenser will eliminate his job – in her mind that machine is just going to make it so much harder to get her OxyContin and Vicodin. She conceals powdered pain pills in re-sealed sweetener packets. She scrounges in the sink drain with a jerry-rigged, gum-ended stick to find that one last Vicodin she accidentally dropped.

Nurse Jackie shows great compassion for her patients, but realizes at one point she almost killed an unconscious patient because of a careless mistake. Compassion only goes so far when you are a drug addict.

Many other TV dramas weave alcoholism and addiction through their story lines. Saving Grace has its fill of alcohol-fuel sexcapades, and even TrueBlood dabbles in addiction to V, the blood of vampires that in the novel makes humans stronger and more attractive but in the HBO series makes them hallucinate and experience euphoric states.

Rescue Me, the New York Fire Department drama starring Dennis Leary as lead character Tommy Gavin, offers a family legacy of alcoholism – father, uncle, son, sister. Tommy Gavin recently decided he is no longer an alcoholic; his heavy drinking was merely a reaction to the stress of 9/11 that set him on a self-destructive path. He makes an awkward speech at an AA meeting one week after receiving his one-year chip for sobriety: they are all a bunch of whiners and he’s going to go drink now. The next week he questions himself and asks a friend, “Do you think I’m an alcoholic?” She punches him and says, “No! You’re a high-functioning alcoholic.” Okay, that settles it.

The HBO drama Weeds follows the story of a marijuana-dealing suburban mom, while Californication shows the unintended consequences of compulsive sexual behavior.

There is no question that addiction has become a prominent theme throughout TV dramas and plays smaller roles in countless other shows, from the drug-addicted Iraq war veteran on Brothers and Sisters to the alcohol-abusing mother on In Plain Site. The persistence of this theme likely reflects some of the stresses and challenges of the real world right now. Certainly alcoholism and drug addiction can be just some of the consequences of a damaged economy where ordinary people suddenly find themselves on the precipice of financial ruin. Addiction is not caused by a bad economy, but severe stress can push someone with addictive tendencies into more abusive drinking or drug use. Addiction is a progressive disease, and stress can kick that progression into high gear.

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