Sometimes they like it. Sometimes they don’t.
By Samantha Schles
For years, characters using medication on TV shows was like a hot stove. The networks would touch it, but jump back in time to not scar characters. It hasn’t been until the past 15 years that channels began to air programs with characters actually self-medicating. Of these, most involve characters battling alcohol abuse, like Jack, the depressed doctor in Lost.
Only a few network shows deal with medication in a serious manner, and most that do are canceled quickly. Showing medication and painkillers with consequences, and characters using medical marijuana at all, are reserved for premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime. The current state of pill-popping characters is not overly preachy and non-condoning.
The 1990s signified a transition to characters with serious psychological issues. However, shows mostly used the after-school-special formula to deal with the subject. One such instance is in season two of Saved By The Bell, where Jessie Spano resorts to caffeine pills to keep up with her battling school and social lives. With the help of Slater, Zack and the rest of the gang, Jessie goes off the pills, and the abuse of medication is never breached again in the series. Moving into the new century, network programs shifted to a different approach to characters using medication.
Current comedy shows often adopt the “no to limited repercussions” outlook on pill use. Usually, humorously titled pills surface for one-episode stints and are never mentioned again. The Tina Fey-created 30 Rock has around three episodes in which characters down drugs. In one episode, Jack suggests Liz Lemon take a drug called Comanaprosil (side effects include dizziness, sexual nightmares and sleep crime) for her flight to Chicago. While on the drug, Liz believes she befriends Oprah on the airplane, which actually turns out to be a sassy 13-year-old.
Another example of one-stint use of drugs is the new series Glee. In order for the quarterback/hunky leading man Finn to balance his life (this seems to turn everyone to drugs, doesn’t it?), he begins taking pills to stay peppy and alert. What ensues is an entire glee club doped up on pills, frantically singing their hearts out and grinding their teeth to pumping mash-ups.
The only current television show on network primetime that deals with medication use seriously is House, M.D. Dr. Gregory House is a brilliant doctor who suffers from chronic leg pain after a disastrous operation. House relies on Vicodin and his cane in order to get through endless days of absurd medical anomalies that always seem to occur in his hospital.
House is currently the only self-medicating doctor on any network show. Though the show mainly takes the “disease of the hour” approach, it still devotes a good amount of time to House’s addiction and his struggle to over come it. Other shows have showcased self-medication with pills over the course of the series, but they haven’t lasted as long as House.
The only comparable example is NBC’s Will and Grace. The show’s rich and shrill Karen Walker wouldn’t be able to hold her martini glass if not for her daily dose of pills. Her habits are seen as innocuous; the studio audience never sees Karen in withdrawal, and there are never real repercussions for her drug use. The main difference between House and Will and Grace is not just the comedy, but that Karen is a supporting character. Karen’s drug habits and Karen in general were never the focus of the show.
While network shows are still shying away from serious medication use, HBO and Showtime both feature numerous shows that draw attention to this very issue. It first began in 1999 with the premiere of The Sopranos on HBO.
The show begins with the typical gangster Tony Soprano in a not-so-typical situation for a man of his stature: in a psychologist’s office. Tony suffers from panic attacks, prompting him to begin therapy with Dr. Jennifer Melfi. With Dr. Melfi’s help, Tony is prescribed medication for panic attacks and, later, depression. What was revolutionary about the show was the normality of it. The show featured graphic mob violence, habitual hard drug use and the fury of suburban mothers alongside regularly scheduled psychiatric appointments. The massive success of the show gave way for more serious “adult” story lines, like medication, on other premium channel TV shows.
After The Sopranos reached cult status, more shows featuring psychiatric patients and prescription pill users emerged. In 2005, Weeds, a show about a suburban pot-dealing mom, premiered on Showtime. While initially the show was just a fun foray into Southern California suburbs and casual drug use, the protagonist (if we can call her that) Nancy Botwin eventually gets into scrapes with Mexican drug lords, human trafficking and assassination attempts.
Nancy’s sons Silas and Shane both begin dealing drugs in season five. However, the show took a turn with Silas’ endeavor into selling marijuana legally. He begins, as he tells his landlady, a “compassionate care club.” The dispensary is met with much resistance, a cop extorts Silas, and eventually his business fails.
The past two years have been a signal for real change in medication story lines in television. In 2008, the vampire-centric program True Blood premiered on HBO. Yes, a supernatural show about vampires, telepathy and southern Republicans managed to squeeze in pill use as well.
In the series, vampire blood, commonly known as “V,” is used as a sexual stimulant and psychotropic drug by humans. Jason Stackhouse, the beautiful albeit stupid younger brother of the main character, meets a pretty young girl, Amy, and the two begin using the drug habitually. Eventually, Amy is killed while on “V”. Let that be a lesson to you.
In 2009, Showtime debuted two new shows that dealt primarily with medication while other shows only dabbled. The United States of Tara, a series about a mother with dissociative identity disorder, and Nurse Jackie, a show about a nurse with a drug habit, both explore the effects of prescription medication.
Though only one and a half seasons into the show, Nurse Jackie has touched on the use of OxyContin, Valium, Vicodin and medical marijuana. In a bold episode of season two called “Apple Bong,” Jackie suggests a cancer patient try marijuana to relieve his unending pain. A doctor scolds her for even mentioning an illegal drug in the hospital. Jackie sneaks the patient out to an ambulance truck, creates a bong out of an apple, smokes up and instructs the patient to do the same.
Similarly, The United States of Tara shows the rollercoaster ride that is prescription medication. Although she attends therapy, keeps a video diary and ingests countless pills, Tara is never quite able to suppress her alternate personalities for very long.
In the medication landscape of TV, it seems House is the only network TV show that takes a serious look at medication, while plenty of comedy shows breach the subject often. It’s not necessary for every show to devote time to this issue. It’s not a bad thing, either, to have comedy characters take pills that make them see Oprah. There is a large amount of TV content devoted to the issue of medication evenly distributed between basic cable and premium channels. There is balance of seriousness and silliness that works. Maybe what TV is trying to say is that we can have it all.
Samantha Schles is a sophomore journalism major who thinks House is wrong—it really is lupus this time. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.