Anti-tobacco proponents often point to the removal of cigarette advertising from television as instrumental in reducing smoking in our culture. They have also called for a reduction or elimination of smoking in television programs and films to help their cause, with considerable success.
Drinking in popular fiction has had a somewhat similar history to that of smoking: for decades, it was depicted as an acceptable part of life and socializing. Because science had further to catch up in showing that smoking is destructive to one’s health, there have been more examples in popular fiction of drinking as a central element in cautionary stories. Yet in some ways, it has lagged behind smoking in showing the dangers of consumption,
One of the most famous depictions of the destructive effects of alcoholism was in the 1940’s book and movie, The Lost Weekend. Praised as a breakthrough movie for its realistic depiction of a man in the throes of severe alcoholism, it suffered from a simplistic “recovery” by its protagonist, who seemingly snapped out of his addiction at the end. The lurid hallucinations of his delirium seemed to match those of psychedelic drugs years later, although such episodes for alcoholics occur only in extreme stages.
Hard-drinking men and women persisted through the 50’s and 60’s, shown as either strong-willed heroic types or sloppy drunks. Days of Wine and Roses, a rare exception, showed a middle class couple dealing realistically with alcohol addiction. While daytime and nighttime soap operas in the 70’s and 80’s often had alcoholic characters, few television shows ever dealt with the process of addiction recovery.
The last few years have seen a change in this. At least two new (and very different) TV shows feature both main and recurring characters who are recovering addicts, and the activities around recovery, including group assistance and treatment and relapse, are integral parts of their storylines.
Mom is a sitcom about a mother and daughter who are both recovering alcoholics. It finds laughs in the painful truths about the effects of addiction on families and in the valiant process of recovery.
Elementary is a modern reworking of Sherlock Holmes, with the legendary detective depicted as a recovering drug addict and his partner, Watson, as his sober companion. While he is coping with drugs rather than alcohol, the struggles with recovery and relapse and the attendance at 12-step programs is almost identical to that of alcoholics. These struggles are woven into almost all of the show’s storylines.
As we talked about in an earlier blog, one of the barriers that the addressing of alcohol abuse faces is that, except in certain circumstances, drinking is perfectly legal and acceptable. Relapse requires merely a trip to the grocery store rather than finding a dealer in some back alley or club. It is easier to keep the addiction hidden and, in recovery, to keep relapse a secret. This is one reason EtG test kits are such an integral part of recovery programs.
The more “normal” alcohol abuse is shown to be, and the more courageous and exemplary the depiction of the struggle to recover, the easier it will be both for addicts to come forward for treatment and for loved ones and friends to support them in their recovery. Mom and Elementary are admirable first steps in this direction.