The History of Alcoholism on TV: From Comedy to Empathy

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Television drunks were once mined for laughs; now characters like Don Draper and Tommy Gavin make us feel compassion for them in their struggles with drinking.

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Television saw the comedy in drunkenness long before it saw the tragedy. From Shakespeare's Falstaff to Mark Twain's Pap Finn, the "town drunk" has been a source of amuse, ridicule, and scorn for centuries—and the small screen was once no different. Television's greatest early example is The Andy Griffith Show's Otis Campbell—a man described by Barney Fife as "smashed, buzzed, tiddly, gassed, off the wagon and back on the sauce, or just plain drunk." Otis' drunkenness was the one-note source of a thousand jokes over the series' 249-episode, seven-year run, until its finale in 1967.

But as The Andy Griffith Show was ending, public perception of alcoholism was beginning to change. In 1973, Alcoholics Anonymous referred to alcoholism as a "disease" in its official literature for the first time. The American Psychiatric Association followed suit in 1980, dividing what was formerly called "alcoholism" into two categories: alcohol abuse ("repeated use despite recurrent adverse consequences") and alcohol dependence (alcohol abuse "combined with tolerance, withdrawal, and an uncontrollable drive to drink"). As the American public got used to the idea that alcoholism was an actual disease, alcoholics gained widespread sympathy and support. Cultural attitudes about alcohol abuse had changed enough that by the release of 1986's TV movie sequel to The Andy Griffith Show, Return to Mayberry, Otis had sobered up and taken a steady job as town's ice cream man.

America's internal conflict about alcohol use is best summed up, appropriately enough, by Homer Simpson, who once called beer "the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems." As both doctors and the American public as a whole have begun to take alcoholism more seriously, TV has walked an uneasy line, alternately playing up the comedy of alcohol use and the tragedy of alcohol abuse. Critiques continue today; in a 2010 article for the New York Times, critic Alessandra Stanley argued that "television has a drinking problem," saying that contemporary depictions of alcohol use on TV create "a conflicted, all-or-nothing portrait that isn't realistic" but is rather an example of "the American love-hate relationship with liquor—all or Prohibition."

There are shows that fall neatly into Stanley's argument that alcohol use on television is extreme. Two and a Half Men is an unusually mean-spirited sitcom, but its constant trivialization of Charlie's alcohol abuse—particularly in light of Charlie Sheen's real-life addiction problems—is one of its greatest sins. (In a typically cynical exchange between the show's brothers, Alan says that drinking makes his depression worse and Charlie replies, "The key is to drink past that. It's not a sprint; it's a marathon"). Other sitcoms find ways to avoid addressing alcoholism altogether; though the lead characters of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia are almost certainly alcoholics, they aren't responsible or self-aware enough to question their own drinking habits. But Stanley's argument oversimplifies television's attitude toward drinking; there are plenty of characters who regularly imbibe—the barflies of How I Met Your Mother or the wine-swilling protagonists of Cougar Town—but are presented to us as aficionados, not addicts.

But the use of alcohol in comedy has nothing on contemporary drama, where the "noble, recovering alcoholic" protagonist has become a cliché unto itself. I spoke with Dr. Ken Winters, a University of Minnesota professor and associate editor for the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, about alcoholism on television. "We don't make jokes about the skid-row drunk anymore," said Dr. Winters, who gives credit to TV's more nuanced portrayals of addicts in recent years. He pointed to Tommy Gavin, the lead character of FX's Rescue Me, as the most accurate depiction of alcoholism he'd personally seen on television. "He relapsed, and defied his sponsor, his recovery group [...] It was all bad, and that tends to be the reality, especially if you're a chronic [abuser]. In some ways it was providing a message to a lot of people who might think, 'I can slip back into some functional line of drinking.'"

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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