The drugs don’t work

It’s a rather festive (and boozy) time of year right now, St Patrick’s Day was on on March 17th, and the Spring Equinox,  Holi and Purim (the Jewish festival of drinking so much red wine that you can’t tell the difference between good and evil) are over March 19th-20th.

So I thought it would be topical to discuss my favourite alcoholic characters, and other addicts. Nobody’s poison is better- or worse- than anyone else’s, surely?

Gregory House, House

House certainly isn’t averse to the temptations of alcohol- in fact his drinking was arguably to blame for the death of his best friend’s girlfriend- but his main vice is Vicodin.

Although he originally started taking the drug to manage chronic leg pain, he clearly became addicted (a fact which takes him a long time to admit). His character was largely inspired by Sherlock Holmes, there’s only a semantic difference between a house and a ho(l)me after all, who was a recreational drug user. House focuses more on the problems of drug addiction than Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective novels did, with House’s drug use causing problems in all of his personal and professional relationships, and eventually resulting in hallucinations which leave him lost and confused.

Rupert Giles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

In ‘Band Candy’ Buffy and her friends got to see a different side of the ostensibly stuffy and proper Giles. Bewitched chocolate bars turn Sunnydale’s adults into teenage versions of themselves, and Giles is revealed to have been wildly different in his youth- he was a boozy, violent smoker with a proper Landan accent. This meshes with what they learnt about him in the earlier episode ‘Dark Age’, where  Giles is “Lost Weekend-ing in his apartment” (as Buffy puts it), drowning his sorrows in alcohol after something from his “Ripper” past comes back to haunt him. This turns out to be a demon called Eyghon who Giles and his friends had summoned during his rebellious phase. Here using magic in search of a high is clearly a parallel for drug addiction, a concept which was explored more fully in season six with Willow’s character.

Dexter Morgan, Dexter

Dexter has an uncontrollable urge to kill other serial killers, which the show certainly presents as an addiction. This was done in a slightly heavy-handed way in season two, when his girlfriend Rita assumed that his strange behaviour was a product of heroin use and forced him to go to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. After finally dispensing of his sponsor Lila, who kept claiming to really understand him in a wildly irritating fashion, the show has been free to explore addiction- and its causes and effects- in an interesting manner, without the requisite empty bottles and/or needles.

Don Draper, Mad Men

It’s pretty rare to see Don Draper without a drink in his hand- although to be fair that could be said of some other Mad Men characters too. The idea of working in an advertising agency in 1960s New York where it was apparently acceptable to drink at all hours of the day seems initially intoxicating, but it becomes clear that it’s not a lifestyle without its problems. For Don this has included blackouts and a drunk driving accident, whereas for others it’s been public incontinence or heart attacks. Since Don is dealing with the stress of concealing his real identity it’s not really surprising that he turns to alcohol for relief, especially as he may be modelling his behaviour on his boozy mentor Roger Sterling. However, he does seem to have at least slightly curbed his alcoholism, publicly gave up smoking as part of a campaign and seemed disgusted by his ex-girlfriend’s heroin dependency- and as he moves into a new marriage maybe he’s going to be able to shed some of his old lifestyle.

Hank Moody, Californication

Hank’s character isn’t necessarily all that different to Don Draper’s- they’re both creative and impulsive individuals who seem to find it very difficult to ever say “no” to women or alcohol. But Hank’s the product of a very different time period, and is far more of a self-indulgent loose cannon. The hedonistic lifestyle of him and his friends makes it easy to just get fucked up and not worry too hard about the consequences- until something drastic like Marcy ending up in rehab happens anyway. He took advantage of his accidental pills-plus-booze overdose when it was interpreted as a suicide attempt, unfairly playing on the emotions of his family for his own gain. Hank might be a loveable rogue type of character, but if he was actually in your life you’d get pissed off really fast.

Nate Ford, Leverage

Nate set up his group of con artists who steal from the evil rich to give back to the deserving poor, after losing his faith in the system. He was an insurance fraud investigator, and a hardworking and loyal employee at that, but when his young son  became fatally ill the company refused to pay for an experimental procedure that could have saved him. After his son’s death, Nate turned to alcohol and he lost both his job and his marriage. Although Nate is undoubtedly brilliant at what he does his drinking sometimes interferes, making him unpredictable and straining his relationship with the rest of the team. They probably shouldn’t have agreed to set up their new headquarters in a pub, on reflection.

Serena van der Woodsen, Gossip Girl

Although Serena is portrayed as a bad girl turned good (ish) when she returns to town at the start of Gossip Girl, we got to see glimpses of the old party girl ways which resulted in her leaving town after secretly sleeping with her best friend’s boyfriend. Flashbacks and stories of the past show her to have been drinking heavily, as well as taking a lot of drugs and feeling responsible for a friend’s cocaine overdose and subsequent death. Although she’s cleaned herself up she has on occasion slipped back into her old ways- such as when Georgina came back into town and encouraged her to get drunk and party with her. As a result when Juliet kidnapped and drugged Serena, leaving her in a hotel room with no memory of how she’d gotten there, everyone assumed that Serena had simply relapsed. Luckily the truth was eventually unravelled, but not without causing Serena great pain and testing her relationships with friends and family sorely.

Doug Wilson, Weeds

It’s unsurprising that a show about drug dealing features drug enthusiasts. As an accountant Doug was able to help Nancy set up her operation, particularly in terms of laundering money through a bakery. As a frequent marijuana user he was also able to help her develop her client base through his contacts. He bonded with her brother-in-law (and de facto partner) Andy, and the two of them enjoyed getting stoned and being stupid together. However as the series has progressed Andy has taken on more responsibility and matured as a person, whereas Doug seems to have somehow regressed even further and his life has rather unravelled. Getting caught up with Nancy’s drama resulted in him being kidnapped and almost killed, but the “miraculous” way in which he was saved seems to have convinced him to go home to his family, and possibly to straighten up his act.

Danny Tripp, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Studio 60 was wonderful/uncomfortable viewing as so much of it was a thinly veiled barely fictionalized version of events in the life of the show’s creator and writer Aaron Sorkin. The Danny and Matt producer-writer team is clearly based on Aaron Sorkin’s close working relationship with producer Tommy Schlamme, whom he worked with on Sports Night and The West Wing, as well as Studio 60. However Danny’s drug addiction (and relapse) is clearly based on Aaron Sorkin’s own experiences. (Ever wondered why season four of The West Wing is so insane? I blame- and/or thank- the crack pipe.) Danny’s relapse allowed Jordan to bully him and Matt to return to the sketch show they used to work for after Wes Mendell goes apeshit on live TV (and uses a crack pipe metaphor!) and loses his job, so it all worked out pretty well.

Mason, Dead Like Me

Mason was a drug addict and alcoholic before he died drilling a hole into his head in search of the ultimate high. (People have had good ideas while on acid, but this wasn’t one of them.) After death he becomes a grim reaper and continues in these habits. I mean, why not? It’s not like they’d kill him now. His behaviour does tend to backfire however, being fucked up makes him kind of a fuck up. His boss doesn’t respect him because of his sloppy attitude to reaping souls, and the woman he’s in love with doesn’t take him seriously.

Also he really didn’t make smuggling illegals in one’s bottom look as fun as you might have thought. [Skip to the 1:13 mark for Mason’s appearance in the clip.]

Dan Stark, The Good Guys

Apparently Bradley Whitford has a penchant for playing addicts called Daniel- he also played Danny Tripp in Studio 60. His character in The Good Guys was rather different however, essentially a washed-up Texan cop with a porn ‘tache who lives in a trailer. Computers, mobile phones and DNA tests seemed like dangerous voodoo to him, he was much happier sticking to tried and tested old fashioned methods- many of which seemed to involve drinking beer and eating ribs at some point along the way. He probably wouldn’t see himself as an alcoholic, being the product of an environment where his behaviour was seen as normal, but he was definitely a total boozehound. His close detective/snitch relationship with Julius, who became a bartender, was clearly enablement too.

Raj Koothrappali, The Big Bang Theory

Raj’s alcoholism is a product of his extreme shyness which leads him to be unable to speak to- or even in front of- women. However he’s learnt that getting a drink in him, or when he met Summer Glau thinking that he’d drunk something alcoholic, puts a stop to this mutism. Raj is quite a fun drunk, if a tad obnoxious to women, but having to get drunk to speak to women must eventually take its toll. No wonder he (apparently) went for a deaf girlfriend.

Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock

In this modern update of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the titular character is addicted to nicotine rather than cocaine. A detective doing lines off a hooker sounds a bit more HBO than BBC, after all. Rather than Holmes’ traditional pipe, this version of Sherlock just slaps on nicotine patches. It’s understandable, as you really can’t smoke anywhere in London. Sherlock judges the difficulty of problems based on how many patches he’ll need in order to mull them over- much as the original character appreciated cocaine as a stimulant.

Jared Booth, Bones

Seeley Booth’s baby brother initially seemed very sorted and successful- a Naval officer with a new job at the Pentagon who was capable of charming Booth’s highly intelligent partner Temperance Brennan. However it was revealed that he has a history of causing trouble, which his big brother would end up taking the blame for- which explained why Seeley wasn’t thrilled to have him back in his life. Jared clearly had a drinking problem, and tried to get Seeley to cover for him so he wouldn’t lose his job or get into trouble for a drunk driving incident. Not only was this unfair to Seeley, but it also brought back unhappy memories of an abusive childhood with their alcoholic father.

Jared did eventually make amends, and their relationship seems to be much improved. Given that Seeley himself had a serious issue with gambling addiction he was probably able to empathise with his younger brother.

Leo McGarry, The West Wing

John Spencer as Leo is one of the most thoughtful representations of alcoholism on TV. Ever. His explanation of addiction is realistic, his empathy for the woman who outs his secret because she grew up with an alcoholic father (as did he) is touching, his relapses (seen in flashbacks) and initial inability to attend AA meetings because of his high profile jobs are heart-wrenching and the fact that he gets his best friend Jed Bartlet elected as President even though he’s more well-known in the party is because he has these secrets. In some ways maybe it should have been President McGarry, Leo was the one with the military and cabinet experience.

As Josh puts it, the fact that Leo’ is a recovering alcoholic is “the worst kept secret in Washington” and “you’re Boston-Irish Catholic. Back there and back then, a drinking problem wasn’t a problem”, but the fact that he was also addicted to Valium is a potential big deal for the party. The love of his friends and colleagues stop the situation from turning into one where he’d have to resign as Chief of Staff, and despite his gruff persona his struggles gave Leo an understanding and empathy towards other people’s problems. And when Josh is dealing with PTSD, he makes one of the loveliest speeches:

“Sugar” Sweet, Sugar Rush

Kim was crushing on- and completely obsessed with Sugar (real name: Maria Sweet). Sugar, on the other hand, was more into getting really trashed and having sex with men while half-conscious on Brighton beach. Kim’s claim that these interludes were essentially tantamount to rape was questionable, but she was motivated by concern for her best friend. Sugar’s character developed during the second season, but Kim never really got over her Sugar addiction.

Ron Donald, Party Down

The initially uptight and straight-laced leader of the half-assed catering team rediscovered his alcoholic side at a high school reunion. His attempt to once again drink an entire bottle of whiskey had messy consequences- and not just in terms of vomit. He started to completely fall apart, leaving wannabe actor Henry, who ironically had some short-lived fame many years ago in a beer commercial, in charge. With someone else taking control, Ron was free to run around and cause trouble which he did- essentially emulating Henry’s behaviour while Henry became much more like Ron had been. Evetually though Ron was able to pull himself together and get back on top.

Logan Echolls, Veronica Mars

Well you’d have to be pretty drunk to think that an outfit emulating Tom Cruise was a good idea, even for an 80s party. Logan often turns to drink to avoid his problems, of which he has many over the course of the show. This often has negative repercussions for him- such as not remembering confessing that he’s still in with Veronica to her the morning after when she comes to see him and considers rekindling some kind of connection. To make matters worse Kendall, the woman he hooked up with the previous night, appears and Veronica feels even more awkward.

His drinking is probably learnt behaviour from his mother who tried to distract herself from her husband’s abusive behaviour towards their son with drink and drugs.

Lily Charles, Pushing Daisies

Lily was an acerbic, bitter  eyepatched alcoholic. As the show progressed it seemed that this was a coping strategy for dealing with not just her (and her sister’s) extreme agoraphobia and resultant isolation, but also her her dark secrets, and the anguish she felt at concealing them from her remaining beloved family. Ironically though, substances like alcohol and homeopathic drug-laced pies in fact cause her to reveal the secrets she was trying so hard to keep hidden.

Hank Dolworth, Terriers

Donal Logue plays a staple alcoholic character in Terriers. He was a cop with a drinking problem which resulted in him making a misjudgement which caused everything to go wrong, and he eventually lost his job and marriage. When the series starts he’s attempted to pull his life back together, having started a(n unlicensed) PI business, and attending AA meetings. However he has to deal with various travails such as cases gone wrong, his ex-wife getting remarried and getting dragged into a huge Ocean Beach conspiracy. He’s sorely tempted to drink, especially when he ends up at Gretchen’s wedding, and clearly still treasures the obliteration that drunkeness can offer- suggesting getting trashed as a solution to his best friend and business partner Britt’s emotional turmoil.

Jesse Pinkman, Breaking Bad

Despite his good upbringing, Jesse didn’t do well in school (he failed chemistry) and ended up as a small time meth dealer, as well as a frequent user. When he partners up with his desperate former chemistry teacher, Walter White, he’s entranced by the pure crystal meth that Walt’s able to produce. He continues to use a lot, in part as an attempt to cope with the dangerous and frequently violent world that they’re part of. He was introduced to heroin by his landlady/girlfriend Jane, and it was only her death which shook him enough to get him to stop using and to enter rehab. Although he’s stayed clean, being around drugs so much and the horrible things that he’s been forced to face and to do must function as a temptation to fall back into old habits, which may be explored in the next season.

Bubbles, The Wire

Throughout the series Bubbles struggles with his addiction to heroin. As a police informant his in-depth knowledge of Baltimore drug dealers is invaluable, and he also gives “un-fashion” advice to an undercover cop on how to look more appropriate (e.g. sneakers would be marked up by broken needles). He tries to get clean at various points, and you really feel for him. Apparently Andre Royo was so good at portraying the character that a real junkie approached him while a scene was being filmed and decided that Royo-as-Bubbles needed the heroin more than he did.

Homer Simpson, The Simpsons

While The Simpsons is entertaining, it’s rather difficult to consider any of the family as composite characters because they’re all so wildly inconsistent. It’s unsurprising given the longevity of the cartoon sitcom which exists in “floating” time. Homer has continued to be lazy and ignorant throughout the show however, and to almost obsessively enjoy drinking Duff Beer, especially at Moe’s Tavern. Apparently his “borderline” alcoholism is part of what makes him an everyman, which is possibly a tad worrying. But he did give us the wonderful line, “To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems”, so it’s not all bad.

The New Directions, Glee

‘Vitamin D’ was the first real sign of the Glee kids en masse being addicted to anything stronger than the power of song, when their teacher’s wife Terri got a job as the school nurse and got them all hooked on Sudafed in an attempt to improve their lives thereby fixing her marriage. In the previous episode ‘The Rhodes Not Taken’ Kurt developed a taste for alcohol after hanging out with former (and briefly current) glee club member and high school dropout April, who was clearly an alcoholic. This seemed to have been forgotten in the recent episode ‘Blame it on the Alcohol’, although it could explain Kurt’s lack of drinking beyond merely wanting to impress Blaine.

Watching the New Directions get drunk- and give up on trying to find an anti-drinking song- was tons of fun, and it was spot on with the characterisation of drunk girl tropes. However their binging also resulted in horrible hangovers and on-stage vomiting (which looked strangely like clay). With Will Schuester as a role model their behaviour doesn’t seem that surprising, he got crunk at a honky tonk at the same time, and Santana has also accused him of needing to find a 12-step program for people addicted to sweater vests. Still, they’ve all signed a pledge to stay away from the demon drink for now, and hopefully they’ll be able to stay on the wagon until regionals, where he’s supposed to be gifting them with sparkling cider (which is apparently much less alcoholic in America).

The Winchesters, Supernatural

While Dean’s always enjoyed a drink, even if it was purple nurple, it wasn’t until after he came back from Hell that he really seemed to have a drinking problem. Sam noticed him trying to hide his pain and send himself off to sleep with booze, and it’s a tactic that he turned to again when he attempted to live a nice suburban life with Lisa and her son Ben after Sam’s death. Sam himself had developed an addiction to demon blood while under Ruby’s tutelage during Dean’s time in Hell. Their father John has also been characterised as an alcoholic, although a lot of that seems to be retconned. But most of all the Winchesters are addicted to self-sacrifice, and to each other.

Withnail, Withnail and I

Withnail and I is the classic alcoholics’ film. It’s about alcoholic actors drinking a lot, and smoking a Camberwell carrot. Try playing the drinking game– where you match Withnail drink for drink- without dying. I suggest substituting the lighter fluid with something else. You probably still won’t have a clearer idea of what the film’s about, but you may develop a deeper understanding of alcoholism.

Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, Some Like It Hot

Marilyn Monroe is fantastic as Sugar in Some Like it Hot, she really conveys the sweetness and naivety of the character. Sugar clearly has a drinking problem, she smuggles bourbon in a flask despite the fact that drinking is prohibited by their boss during work hours. She drinks out of unhappiness, she’s tired of getting “the fuzzy end of the lollipop”, and of having horrible luck with men. She also uses alcohol as a social tool, unsurprising for jazz musicians I suppose. And if she hadn’t been wasted I’m not sure she would possibly have bought Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon in drag as actual women for more than about three seconds.

Sarah Brown, Guys and Dolls

Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Save a Soul Mission (analogous to the Salvation Army) is incredibly straight laced and proper, so much so that she becomes the focus of a bet between two New York City petty gamblers and crooks. Nathan bets that Sky can’t get her to have dinner with him in Havana, Cuba- and initially it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll succeed. But she does agree to it in exchange for Sky’s promise of bringing her plenty of drunks and degenerates to save her Mission from being closed down. He gets her drunk on dulce de leche (which is not simply sweet milk, if it is in fact a real cocktail at all). Not that a night of accidental drinking actually makes her an alcoholic by any stretch of the imagination, but the scene of her getting trashed for the first time in her life is adorable, and her hooking up with Sky certainly seemed to be the beginning of her loosening up and/or heading into a downward spiral.

Kid Shelleen, Cat Ballou

Kid Shelleen is the archetypical drunk of the Western genre. He’s a washed up old bum who can’t shoot straight (or even hit the side of a barn). This mostly seems to be his response to the fact that the world is changing and the old legends have stopped mattering to people, as discussed in my review of the film. (In some ways I thought that Rango echoed a similar sentiment.) Shelleen did eventually manage to clean himself up, inspired by his love of Cat, and manages to take on their enemy Strawn. However by the end up the film he seems to have slipped back to his old ways (perhaps because Cat’s not interested in him), and his attitude even seems to have effected his horse.

Kathryn Merteuil, Cruel Intentions

Kathryn managed to project an image of perfection, but it’s totally a facade. She’s not really a prim and proper young lady, but the points she makes about a gendered double standard which forces her to appear a certain way in order to be deemed acceptable by polite society are valid. In reality her personality was about as far from the one she presented as possible, not only does she engage in secret sex she also hides a cocaine supply in her crucifix.

Mark Renton, Trainspotting

Trainspotting presents a graphic portrayal of heroin addiction. In part Renton and his friends seem to have chosen this lifestyle as an explicit alternative to the mainstream. One day he makes the decision to give up the drug, and the film details the experience- complete with creepy hallucinations, relapse and out of control bodily functions.

Bob Arctor, A Scanner Darkly

Philip K. Dick’s novel, and Richard Linklater’s adaptation, are set in a fictionalised version of 1970s drug culture where “Substance D” is the psychoactive drug of choice. Arctor is actually (unknowingly) at the centre of a plot to investigate New Path, a rehab organisation, and its drug pushing agenda. The dedication of both the book and the film to Dick and various friends who suffered debilitating consequences, including death, as a result of drug addiction is moving and highlights that although D might not be a real thing, the effects of this made-up drug are all too familiar.

The Caterpillar, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

A druggy interpretation of the events of Alice is common- it seems hallucinatory (especially with all the growing and shrinking) and there’s frequent references to eating and drinking substances which cause these effects, including mushrooms. The hookah-smoking caterpillar is one of the more obvious signs of drug use, and in Tim Burton’s adaptation of the story (in which he’s randomly renamed Absolem) he’s definitely presented in a trippy manner:

The narrator, Junky

Junky (also published as Junkie, and originally titled Junk) is a semi-autobiographical novel about heroin addiction, written under Burroughs’ pseudonym- William Lee. For 1950s America it was shockingly frank, and attempted to dispel many drug myths propagated at the time. Although his “scientific” theories may have been fantastical, Burroughs certainly knew about the subject matter he was writing about. Queer represents a sort-of sequel to Junky which ends with the narrator heading to South America in seach of the ultimate high.

Vampires, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Angel; The Vampire Diaries; True Blood; Interview with the Vampire; Being Human etc)

Vampires are fabulously fluid metaphors- they can represent the allure of Otherness, illness and the potential for infection, or a secret privileged elite. Often their craving for blood is presented as analogous to addiction. While physically able to survive without imbibing blood constantly, they are often filled up blood lust and even “good” vampires (like Angel and later Spike in Buffy and Angel, Bill in True Blood, Louis in Interview with the Vampire, Mitchell in Being Human or Stefan in The Vampire Diaries) end up doing questionable things either in search of blood or once they’ve had a taste of the good stuff. One of my favourite examples is the soulless Harmony in Angel who really tries to emulate the titular character and substitute animal for human blood, but struggles to cope with her desire for the harder substance.

Jay Munly, ‘Rufus Wainwright I’m Coming After You’

Jay Munly’s song (lyrics here) about getting the children of famous musicians drunk in order to satiate his own addiction, which started with Leonard Cohen’s son, to the talent they’re able to siphon off and give to him is fantastic. Trust me, you need this in your life.

Brad Paisley, ‘Alcohol’

And a more upbeat take on alcohol’s ability to bring about fights, friendship and fucks to round off us:

So do you have a favourite addict? Confess all in the comments…

10 thoughts on “The drugs don’t work

  1. So many addicts to choose from! I’d say my favourites are Robert Downey Jr & Jeff Bridges. RDJ has played a lot of addicted characters, such as Julian in Less Than Zero and Tony Stark in the Iron Man series. The incredibly laidback Bridges may not actually be an addict like his seminal character The Dude in The Big Lebowski… but he certainly makes it look like a valid lifestyle choice!

    • RDJ does seem particularly good at it! Was his character in Ally McBeal supposed to be addicted to anything? (As always I’m far more obsessed with the small screen than the big one…)

  2. Ooh loving all of the above amazing addicts! What about will & grace’s karen walker? She’s my favourite pill popping, alco ever! ❤ her!

    We should do a related post of the unrealistic portrayal of drugs (and sometimes alcohol) in tv land…weed always gets such a bad and laughabley inaccurate rep…especially in teen tv! The misrepresentations of drugs…i feel inspired!…too controversial?!

    • Oooh I didn’t even think of Karen, she’s a good one! There’s a lot of my favourite cable shows I didn’t get around to mentioning either (Sopranos, Oz, Boardwalk Empire, Treme…), maybe it needs a part two!

      I like the idea of a piece on the unrealistic portrayal of alcohol and drugs on TV, especially network and teen programs!

      • Yes so true of network/teen shows! My particular favourite case of inaccuracy is from the o.c. when ryan’s brother trey attempts to sexually attack marissa because he “was really stoned”…where did a stoned guy get that kind of energy from?! But i guess it made for a better storeyline than if they just got the munchies and passed out!

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