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Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Television narrative has long mined drug and alcohol use and abuse for inciting incidents. As a plot device deployed to inaugurate conflict within a television narrative, drugs and alcohol can really do the trick, whether for single episodes or for multi-episode story arcs. In a dramatic series, this or that beloved character might become addicted to drugs or alcohol, while a situation comedy might devote a “very special episode” to the impact of drugs or alcohol upon one or more of its characters. Crime shows, in particular, are especially drug- and alcohol-dependent, with intoxicant related crimes contributing myriad story arcs for shows as historically and stylistically diverse as Dragnet, Police Woman and The Wire.

Yet within the last decade or so, several emerging televisual subgenres have begun using drugs and alcohol as a narrative device in ways that might prove historically significant. While a full accounting of the ways drugs and alcohol manifest on contemporary television screens certainly exceeds my task in this brief comment, several noteworthy ways that contemporary television narratives “use” drugs and alcohol warrant consideration. (For the purposes of this discussion, I employ the term “television narrative” to address a diverse array of televisual genres, including both scripted dramas and comedies alongside what is widely referred to as “reality” tv, the myriad documentary television programs which, though ostensibly “unscripted,” nonetheless utilize a range of editing and production techniques to sculpt the dramatic action internal to each episode and, often, across the span of a multi-episode “season” of programming.)

The three subgenres I would like to highlight are, in turn, domestic dramas of narco-trafficking; “drunk girls gone wild” reality shows; and, perhaps most ubiquitously, RehabTV. I will address both of the former categories in brief, detailing how the primary effect of drugs and alcohol remains that of the inciting incident and how each deploys intoxicants primarily as a means of inaugurating scripted (and unscripted) narrative conflict. I then query the emergence and implications of what might be the signature televisual narrative template of this historical moment, the subgenre I have come to call “RehabTV.”

Domestic dramas of drug trafficking can be seen in such well-regarded scripted series as Breaking Bad, Weeds and Nurse Jackie, in which narrative scenarios of drug production and circulation provide the inciting impetus. Each series, in its own idiosyncratic way, explores how narco-trafficking becomes a sensible middle-class survival strategy for, respectively, a high school teacher, a widowed housewife, and an emergency room nurse. In seeming contrast, the drunken antics on “candid” reality series like MTV’s Real World and Jersey Shore as well as Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise and the Oxygen Network’s Bad Girls Club, seem less about survival than sheer excess. In each, alcohol flows freely both as a social lubricant and as a ready accelerant for heated interpersonal exchanges. The critically acclaimed scripted shows purport to explore the dramatic dimensions of contemporary intoxicants even as the critically reviled unscripted shows allegedly exploit them. Yet both rely upon drugs and alcohol to incite dramatic incidents. In each subgenre, the television narrative frames a fascinating, largely contrived glimpse into the intimate lives of those narcotraffickers and college-age binge drinkers occasionally absorbing the headlines. Even so, despite the seeming ubiquity of these domesticated drug dealers and inebriated youths “getting real,” no televisual genre’s cup runneth over quite so much as that of “RehabTV.”

My category of “RehabTV” describes those shows in which compulsive behavior – often (as we shall see, not necessarily) involving substance abuse – incites sometimes successful but often failed narratives of personal triumph and individual redemption. “RehabTV” shows are typically instantiated by a gruesome spectacle of addiction that is subsequently transformed by the promise or challenge of abstinent behavior modification as the idealized route toward healing. Among such programs, A&E’s Intervention and VH1’s Celebrity Rehab stand as perhaps the two most conspicuous recent examples, In contrast to earlier shows in which thematics of recovery also loomed large (especially the 1990s boom in life narrative shows like A&E’s Biography, VH1’s Behind The Music, and Lifetime’s Intimate Portrait), the narrative subgenre of “RehabTV” resists the encumbrances of actual biography by emphasizing the mechanic formula of “rehab” itself.

The narrative premise of “RehabTV” functions as a simple bait and switch. Within the narrative worldview of each series, the troubled protagonist thinks they need their drug of choice when what they truly require is the program of typically abstinent behavior modification proposed by the show (and its particular cadre of camera-friendly specialists). In some shows, the spectacle emphasizes the substance abuse while others focus on the abstinence. Yet in nearly all, the narrative arc is consistent: start with the problem and end with the promised solution, and, whether or not the episode’s protagonist “succeeds” in kicking their habit, the narrative pleasures of the RehabTV formula is reaffirmed. (Got a problem? Seek rehab!)

Because of its emphasis on narrative formula over content, RehabTV – more than almost any other form of television narrative dependent on intoxicants for its inciting incident – is especially well-suited to the sort of heroic individualism so celebrated in the purportedly secular United States. In a recent discussion of the “myth of self-transformation” as the secular faith of the contemporary age in her book How to Become a Scandal, cultural critic Laura Kipnis observed that, for millennia, human figures in myths and folk legends “used to wrestle with supernatural adversaries like witches or ogres; now addictions and compulsions are the ogres to be wrestled into submission” (156). RehabTV makes each such wrestling match a spectator sport.

Perhaps most striking, RehabTV has become so dominant a television narrative formula that the genre no longer requires even a cameo appearance by drugs or alcohol abuse to inaugurate the drama. An increasing number of shows like Style’s Clean House, A&E’s Hoarders, NBC’s The Biggest Loser and TLC’s My Strange Addiction operate within the “RehabTV” narrative formula without dependence on actual intoxicants for an inciting incident. As the narrative formula of RehabTV thus abstracts drug- and alcohol-dependence as metaphor – rehearsing personal abstinence and behavior modification as solution to every individual problem – what reciprocal impact might RehabTV have upon contemporary understandings of the challenges posed by drug and alcohol use and abuse? In “treating” intoxicants as but a symptom of an intrinsically personal problem, does RehabTV obscure those societal aspects of contemporary addiction – privilege, poverty, policing – that might benefit from more systemic analysis? What, indeed, are the implications of a cultural mindset (rehearsed again and again within RehabTV) that the solution to your every problem is rehab?

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