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Addiction in Film and TV: Changing Perspectives

We see depictions of substance abuse and addiction constantly in popular media, whether it’s Walt and Jesse from Breaking Bad or Nicolas Cage’s Ben of Leaving Las Vegas. The depictions are varied, complex, and often nuanced, just like addiction in real life. Addiction is rarely a simple, straightforward experience, as everyone has a different story. When done well, we can see characters that are realistic, subtle, and familiar. We can see ourselves in them, which may contribute to why we enjoy these films and programs so much. We might also know that addiction isn’t a problem that can’t be solved by the third act of a movie, or by the last commercial break.

Before many modern films and television shows took on addiction or substance abuse, it was often shoehorned into the plot of television show like Happy Days or The Cosby Show. It was rarely approached with the subtlety required for such a sensitive topic, and by the end of the 30-minute program, all the problems caused by a character’s substance abuse had vanished, and certainly weren’t mentioned in the next episode. Addiction simply wasn’t discussed then the same way it is now. Today, some thirty years after the last episode of Happy Days aired, we know far more about addiction and we discuss it in a much more open and honest matter. We can see this clearly reflected back onto us in the media we consume today. Thirty years ago, the drug users and dealers were the ones getting arrested by Starsky and Hutch, yet now we follow those struggling with addiction or substances alone for six seasons or more. We understand now that there are reasons and complexities in addiction, and that substance abuse isn’t always as cut and dry as it seemed years ago. Many now understand that addiction is far from simply being a moral failure or a lapse in willpower; in reality, addiction is a complicated and dense issue that intelligent and creative writing can explore on the silver screen.

As we’ve come to understand more about addiction and substance abuse, depictions in television and film have become far more sophisticated. In that regard, it’s quite possible that these depictions have helped increase awareness and understanding about addiction. As our understanding grows, so too does our media, which in turn increases our understanding. This cyclical nature of culture influencing media and media influencing culture is a wonderful thing. We, as the viewers, can get a glimpse of what our friends, family, and others are experiencing in their addictions, and they may feel more understood based on depictions in media that paint the mosaic of addiction in an understanding or sympathetic light. Addiction is a complicated issue, and we’re lucky to have film and television that can show us many of the complexities and nuances we may not understand.