In popular entertainment, depictions of drug and alcohol use are rarely earnest or accurate. Substance use and excessive drinking are equally glamourized, demonized, and downplayed in many TV shows and movies…if they’re depicted at all. 

At the same time, people experiencing addictions are often portrayed as morally deviant slackers who lack the willpower or strength of character to change. They may be made into symbols of rebellion or coolness, with their addiction rarely causing any serious setbacks in their lives. If they do decide to get sober, they’re often shown suffering through a few hours of withdrawal symptoms, after which they emerge completely clean, with no lingering physical or psychological dependencies on the substances that previously controlled their lives.

You can probably see how these kinds of portrayals of drug use, drinking, and addiction are damaging, both to our collective understanding of drug and alcohol dependency and to the real people struggling to acknowledge and address their substance abuse issues.

Being Honest about Addiction: The Power of TV

Television is one of the most constant forms of entertainment in our lives. We develop long-term relationships with characters and storylines. We get attached to the places where our favorite characters live, work, and hang out with their friends. Most of us engage with television shows on a daily basis–and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. 

In this way, TV is one of the most powerful tools for molding our view and understanding of substance abuse and addiction. It’s also a powerful tool for destigmatizing addiction, and showing people with substance use disorders as real people. Most importantly, TV can portray the realities of addiction, treatment, and recovery–and the rarely linear, often cyclical paths people may take to get there. 

Today, we’re looking at TV shows that have authentically and realistically portrayed the experiences of addiction, rehab, recovery, and relapse. Many of these shows were ahead of their time in the frankness and honesty with which they approached the subject matter. Others have become staples in the lives of people in recovery, as well as family members and friends of people who struggle with addiction.

The Best Portrayals of Addiction, Rehab, and Recovery on TV

Nurse Jackie (2009)

Jackie Peyton, played by Sopranos alum Edie Falco, is a highly competent emergency room nurse in New York City who is secretly battling a dual addiction to both Vicodin and Adderall.

Rescue Me (2004)

Dennis Leary stars as New York firefighter Tommy Gavin, a 9/11 survivor who has relapsed into alcoholism to deal with his survivor’s guilt, PTSD, and family struggles. 

A note: It’s important to remember that everyone’s battle with addiction is different. Whether you’ve been in recovery for years or are still struggling with active addiction, many of these television shows may be triggering or uncomfortable for you to watch. And that’s okay. It’s crucial to manage your condition and recovery in a way that works for you and allows you to put your sobriety first–even if it means you don’t dive into the TV show that all your friends are watching. 

It’s also important to remember that TV is entertainment. It serves many purposes, from catharsis to intrigue to, yes, broadening our perspectives. But TV is telling a story, and most of the time, it’s a fictional one. TV and movies shouldn’t serve as a guide or yardstick for your own experience with addiction, treatment, or recovery. 

Dopesick (2021)

Based partly on a 2018 non-fiction book by journalist Beth Macy, Dopesick is a multi-decade chronicle of the opioid addiction epidemic, from its inception at a family-owned pharmaceutical company in the late 1980s to the resulting public health crisis that continues to devastate individuals, families, and communities.

Mad Men (2007)

While popular perceptions of Mad Men paint the show as one long ad for classic cocktail culture and chainsmoking, the show itself is a far more nuanced portrayal of unresolved alcoholism and addiction. Throughout its 7 seasons, main character Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) grapples with his dependency on alcohol and the psychological traumas that drive his urge to drink. 

Recovery Road (2011)

Based on a 2011 young adult novel of the same name, Recovery Road follows Maddie, a 17-year-old who enters rehab after a school counselor confronts her about her drug use. The show follows Maddie as she enters a sober living facility and forms relationships with other people struggling with addiction. 

The Wire (2002)

Widely considered one of the greatest TV shows of the 21st Century, The Wire also contains an honest portrayal of addiction, recovery, and relapse in the character of Bubbles, played by Andre Royo. Bubbles is a recovering heroin addict whose struggle to maintain sobriety and get his life together is an ongoing thread in the series.

Bojack Horseman

The title character of Bojack Horseman is a faded sitcom star from the 1990s who now lives in relative seclusion in his mansion, battling his addictions to substances and dreaming of a large-scale career comeback. While the show is easy to dismiss on sight (it’s a cartoon set in an alternate universe where humans and anthropomorphic animals live and work alongside each other), its deeper themes and character development culminate in one of the more honest portrayals of addiction and mental illness to hit TVs in recent years.

If you’re struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, your journey to recovery starts with a single step. STR Behavioral Health provides safe, compassionate detox and addiction treatment in a serene setting where you can focus on healing and building the foundation for long-term sobriety and recovery.

Find a location and call us today to learn more about our addiction treatment programs in Pennsylvania.