Television is one of the most popular forms of entertainment today. Whether someone is watching basic cable, streaming shows from a streaming service, or watching a DVD, televisions are usually their medium of choice. With the rise of streaming services over the past few decades, many people have gained access to exponentially more television series and movies.
Television series and movies are known for being dramatized and exaggerated in their depictions of real life. Their portrayal of addiction over the years has been flawed – to say the least. Most media either waters down addiction, turning it humorous or inconsequential, or shows the most extreme addictions while focusing on only negative outcomes.
However, in recent years, there has been a shift in television’s portrayal of addiction treatment. More and more shows and movies are showing actual recovery – featuring characters that are real, relatable, and trying their best to beat their addictions.
The Portrayal of Addiction Treatment on Television
Addiction treatment, as seen on television, is rare. Today’s entertainment media had found a niche in portraying addiction while neglecting the recovery process. Perhaps the rise in addiction portrayal is because there is less stigma on addiction in our drug-addled country. However, the reason that television avoids showing the recovery process may be because it is not entertaining enough to keep viewer interest.
Paul Hinshaw, Senior Inpatient Counselor at Las Vegas Recovery Center, believes that television and entertainment is inappropriately focused on addiction, stating “It’s easier to entertain and hold people’s attention when you’re depicting a person’s downward spiral. Portraying a spiritual and emotional awakening is a lot more difficult to do on film. It’s not exciting.”
The author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain, Dan Mager, has said, “Recovery has a routine and ritualistic aspect to it that is the antithesis to mainstream entertainment. There’s nothing exciting or sexy about it. It doesn’t lead itself to mainstream television.”
Is television’s portrayal of addiction and (lack of) addiction treatment a direct result of the difficulties and disasters of people’s lives becoming entertaining to the general public? When did the misfortunes of other become such a point of interest? Do people today genuinely lack so much empathy that they would rather see a show about a person suffering from chronic addiction that never gets clean than a show that portrays an addict seeking help and going through addiction treatment?
Positive and Negative Portrayals of Addiction Treatment on Television
The only saving grace when it comes to the portrayal of addiction treatment on television today is that it has begun to produce shows that show more realistic addiction experiences and include recovery and positive outcomes for the addict. However, there are still a large number of negative portrayals of addiction on television.
Positive Portrayals of Addiction Treatment
In recent years, more television series and movies have shown addiction and addiction treatment in a hopeful and more positive light.
- Recovery Road – This television series introduces a 17-year-old girl named Maddie who is sent to an adult outpatient program after being caught with alcohol at school. The show immediately gets to work showing the realities of addiction in the pilot episode with Maddie waking up on a random lawn with no recollection of what had happened and no idea where here car was. Later in the pilot episode, Maddie admits to another alcoholic that she may have had nonconsensual sex but cannot remember because she was in a blackout from drinking. Recovery Road follows Maddie on her journey to sobriety while she juggles a double life as a popular and high-achieving high school student by day and a recovering alcoholic at night. This show is a good portrayal of addiction treatment without being too emotionally heavy.
- Mom – Mom is an incredible depiction of addiction treatment and recovery. The show fully recognizes that addiction is a variety of issues and details that have accumulated throughout life and that it has many stories to tell. The show addresses difficult recovery issues like helping your non-addict partner understand that you need to go to meetings every day or learning how to deal with anger after a friend dies because of a relapse. At one point in the show, the alcoholic mother ruins her daughter’s wedding by getting absolutely wasted and acting out. Mom takes real issues that addicts face during addiction treatment and recovery and somehow manages to show them with a sense of humor while also portraying the seriousness of the issues.
- 13 Reasons Why – When 13 Reasons Why was released, it caused huge controversy. The show was targeted to teens, but many people thought the show was much too graphic and extreme for teens. The show portrays binge drinking, drug use, sexual assault, and suicide within the lives of a group of teenagers. While the show does have some very graphic scenes, it is a very realistic portrayal of the issues that teenagers go through and how they can be driven to addiction. One character in particular, named Justin, becomes addicted to heroin while living on the streets. He is eventually found by Clay and some other friends and Clay’s family takes him in and plans to adopt him. While he is living with Clay, Justin looks sober, but he is actually still using in secrecy. Another friend named Bryce supplies him with a prescription opioid medication to help him stop using heroin. By the end of the third season, it is revealed that Justin is still taking the opioid medication (even after swearing he was sober), and he finally admits to Clay and Clay’s parents that he has a problem. He explains that he doesn’t take them to get high anymore; he takes them so he does not go into withdrawal. The family vows to help Justin get sober no matter what. This storyline is a great portrayal of an addict who desperately wants to be sober but cannot manage to do it himself. It shows that your family will love and support you through your addiction treatment.
Negative Portrayals of Addiction Treatment
Television has created many shows and series that either completely avoid the topic of recovery or that thrive on chaotic addiction or portray rehabilitation and recovery in a negative way.
- Requiem for a Dream – The movie Requiem for a Dream shows the lives of 4 drug addicts – Sara, Harry, Marion, and Tyrone. Sara is Harry’s mother. She starts using amphetamines to lose weight fast after she is invited to her favorite game show. She loves the feeling and continues to increase her dosage of amphetamines, which sends her into psychosis. Harry, Marion, and Tyrone are all heroin addicts who begin trafficking heroin because of a desire to realize their dreams. Harry and his girlfriend Marion want to open a clothing store to sell Marion’s clothing designs; Tyrone just wants the approval of his mother and a way out of the ghetto. Their heroin business goes badly, and chaos ensues. Harry ends up with gangrene on his arm and has to get his arm amputated. Marion turns to prostitution to get her heroin. Tyrone ends up in prison detoxing from heroin and dealing with racist prison guards. Sara ends up undergoing electroconvulsive therapy in a psychiatric ward. Everyone loses, and there is no hope.
- A Star is Born – In the 2018 remake of A Star is Born, a famous singer named Jackson Maine, who is battling alcohol and drug addiction, meets a woman named Ally at a drag bar after one of his concerts. Ally is an amazing songwriter and singer, and Jackson invites her to his show – where he pulls her on stage to play one of her songs. They begin a relationship and partnership, singing together at Jackson’s concerts. Ally eventually gets her own record contract, and Jackson starts to spiral downward. His addiction becomes public when he goes on stage with Ally after she wins the Best New Artist Grammy, obviously intoxicated, and urinates on himself. After this incident, Jackson spends about 2 months in rehab and you learn that he attempted suicide when he was 13 years old. When Jack returns home, Ally chooses to put her entire career on hold to care for him. On the night of what was to be her last concert, Jack promises to go see it – but, instead he commits suicide in the garage of their home by hanging himself. Jackson’s suicide because of addiction and guilt is a worst case scenario that is made center stage in the movie while the rehab stay was just a blip in the script. The movie fails to recognize that Jackson is a polysubstance abuser that requires much more rehabilitation than a single drug abuser. Additionally, the movie creates doubt in the general public’s mind about how effective rehab is.
- Celebrity Rehab – Celebrity Rehab was a reality show that featured various celebrities that were actively undergoing treatment for addiction with Drew Pinsky and the rest of the staff at Pasadena Recovery Center in California. It ran for 6 seasons and received much criticism for being made for TV and not portraying real addiction recovery. A substance abuse expert and clinical psychologist named Jeffrey Foote said the following of the show: “The velvet-glove confrontational stuff Pinsky does is what works for TV, but it’s not what works for patients.” Sean Kinney, a member of Alice in Chains whose fellow band member Mike Starr was a cast member on Season 3 of Celebrity Rehab, claims that “[The Show] exploits people at their lowest point, when they’re not in their right mind, and the sad part is, this is like entertainment for people when it’s actually a life and death situation. I don’t think it helps anybody and it makes entertainment out of people’s possible death, and that’s pathetic and it’s stupid.” The show was eventually cancelled in 2013 because of criticisms and backlash over the drug-related deaths of five different celebrities that had been on the show.
The Result of Television’s (Lack of) Portrayal of Addiction Treatment
Because television is so present in everyone’s lives, it affects how people view the world and what happens in it. Turning chronic addiction into entertainment without offering the alternative view of recovery and healing desensitizes people to addiction. Many will either turn a blind eye to addiction in their own life or others, or they will simply assume that there is no hope and the addiction will kill them.
Look at these television drug use statistics:
- Alcohol is the #1 drug shown on television.
- On television, 1 drinking scene is shown every 22 minutes, 1 smoking scene is shown every 57 minutes, and 1 illicit drug scene is shown every 112 minutes.
- One-third of all drinking scenes shown are humorous.
- Only 23% of drinking scenes show negative consequences.
- In a study of the top 200 movies, 68% of the movies included tobacco use, 32% included alcohol use, and 7% included illicit drug use. Furthermore, the films tended to only show positive consequences of drug use.
So, not only does television generally neglect to show addiction treatment but they also rarely even show the negative consequences of drug use. Moreover, more teenagers are trying drugs because of the media’s comedic and nonchalant portrayal of drugs.
A Hopeful Shift in Television’s Addiction Treatment
In spite of years of television treating addiction as entertainment and ignoring the recovery process, there seems to have been a shift in its portrayal of addiction and addiction treatment in recent years. Why is there a sudden change in how television views addiction?
Some believe that the shift toward realistic depictions of addiction treatment on television is a result of the fact that addiction has been classified as a disease – a clinical dependency that must be treated – and it is no longer seen as weakness or moral failure, causing people to not find as much humor in it.
Furthermore, the attitude toward punishment for addiction has shifted from incarceration to addiction treatment first, encouraging the growing belief that addiction treatment is necessary and can save lives.
Television’s portrayal of addiction treatment is hit or miss – mostly depending on the year the show or movie was made. Older television tends to show more negativity toward addiction while newer television tends to focus more on conquering addiction and spreading honest information about living with addiction. No matter what you may see on some television shows, know that addiction treatment can and does work. You just need the right therapists on your side.
Are you looking for help getting your addiction to drugs or alcohol under control? Does the portrayal of addiction treatment in the shows you watch stress you out? The Hills provides quality addiction treatment tailored to your individual needs. Contact us today to find out how we can be a part of your journey through addiction treatment.